Stop and go, Speed Racer!

Wachowski brothers can't keep this story on the straightaway

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The Wachowski brothers certainly put the pedal to the metal in Speed Racer, but what's the use of all that power if you don't have good handling? This souped-up version of the anime television show is a dizzying swirl of eye-popping color, driven by the need for speed and an anarchic desire to jump the track. A deep affection for Tatsuo Yoshida's original 1967-8 series is apparent in The Matrix-makers' rigorous attention to detail, yet that hasn't stopped them from reconfiguring the Mach 5 into this year's model. Speed Racer is an awkward retrofit: A vintage chassis with a turbo-charged engine, it wants to hold the road, but continually veers off-course.

Even as an ADD kid driving his teacher to distraction, all Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) ever wanted was to get behind the wheel and go faster than anyone else. He describes the Racer family obsession with automotive competition as a religion, and the Wachowskis define that as a pure love of the sport. Fixed races and corporate sponsorship are anathema to them, particularly when eldest son Rex crashes and burns after being labeled a "dirty" driver. Now Speed's in the winner's circle, and Pops (John Goodman) doesn't want him going down the same road as his disgraced brother.

This nuclear family anchors the supercharged Speed Racer, with pancake-making stay-at-home Mom (Susan Sarandon) providing moral support, and bothersome baby brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his simian sidekick, Chim Chim, as the rambunctious comic relief. The Racer ranch house, with its candy-colored Googie decor, is a welcoming home base for the extended family crew, including Speed's smart and sassy helicopter pilot girlfriend, Trixie (an ideally cast Christina Ricci).

After a promising start that establishes the family dynamics, Speed Racer shifts into gear and from then on it's either full speed ahead or dead stop. Much of the film's exhausting 2 hours and 15 minutes is spent detailing Speed's races, and the Wachowskis don't stay on the straightaway. The cars careen sideways and often leapfrog over each other as the drivers tackle courses that look more like roller coasters than a traditional circular track. At their best, these competitions are a thrilling Hot Wheels demolition derby (destroying rivals' cars seems almost as important as crossing the finish line) — at their worst, it's like being trapped inside a revved-up video game you can't control.

Even though this is a live-action adaptation, most of the visuals are computer-generated, and the aesthetic is at once hyper-real and highly stylized, with aggressively vibrant colors and cut-and-paste imagery. The film's relentless forward motion comes to a grinding halt when characters converse, their expository dialogue painfully reminiscent of the Japanese original's clunky dubbing. As much as the Wachowskis invested in the look of Speed Racer, they might have passed the screenwriting duties on to someone who could inject some wit into their simplistic platitudes and anti-corporation rants (so out of sync with a sport where every inch of the race car and driver's uniform is covered with sponsors' logos).

With so many races taking place in a confusing alternate universe (at once retro mod and densely futuristic), Speed Racer quickly becomes a blur of sights and sounds with no context. But the disparate elements do come together effectively in the Casa Cristo 5000, a grueling cross-country road race that grounds the action and brings the enigmatic Racer X (Matthew Fox) into Speed's sphere. This sequence not only gives the spunky Trixie and protective Pops some character-building time, but focuses on Speed Racer's under-riding philosophy (teamwork good, corruption bad).

Larry Wachowski (42) and brother Andy (40) are part of a generation whose imagination was fueled by after-school reruns of Speed Racer (in Detroit, it was paired with another influential anime series, Kimba the White Lion), and their loving reverence is obvious even when the film gets caught in a tailspin. This PG-rated action epic attempts to satisfy their nostalgic mass media-fed peers, while appealing to post-Internet kids familiar with anime and the visual language of gaming.

Overlong and overstuffed, Speed Racer roars down Hollywood's road to nowhere. For their summer joyride, the Wachowskis should have heeded their own advice to stop steering, and start driving.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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