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Movie Review

'Racer' tests limits of digital overdrive

Bill Milner (right) stars as a young boy who learns to play in 'Son of Rambow.' Bill Milner (right) stars as a young boy who learns to play in "Son of Rambow." (MAGGIE FERRREIRA/PARAMOUNT VANTAGE VIA AP)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 9, 2008

Watching "Speed Racer," the new summer lollapalooza from the Wachowski brothers, is like being force-fed a Costco-size bag of your favorite candy. For half an hour, taste buds you didn't know you had are firing in delirium, stoked by the movie's outrageous visual razzle-dazzle. Then you hit that spot in the bag where you know you should stop, but the movie keeps going. You feel more and more bloated; the movie keeps going. At a certain point, you may wonder if the movie's eating you. It doesn't end so much as vomit the audience out.

That's entertainment, I suppose, or an experience, or a night out at the movies on acid. In "Speed Racer," millions of dollars and billions of computer cycles have been expended creating a digital wonder-world simulacrum - an unimaginably amped-up, CGI-enhanced live action version of the beloved 1960s Japanese anime many of us remember from US airings on upper-dial broadcast and cable stations (Channel 56 in Boston for me, a half-eaten Space Stick in my hand).

The show, created by Tatsuo Yoshida, was in the mold of Osamu Tezuka's groundbreaking "Astro Boy": flat, fast, catchy, hilariously dubbed in all italics. Boy car-fanatic Speed Racer drove his Mach 5 against colorful opponents with hidden tire-knives, while girlfriend Trixie, parents Pops and Mom, little brother Spritle, and their pet chimp Chim-Chim screeched and swooned in the stands. Wonderful at 4 in the afternoon when you should be doing homework, but is there a movie in it?

The Wachowskis - still trying to match "The Matrix" - respond by building a universe out of pixels and aiming for a massive sugar high. The skies are a cobalt digital blue here, the clouds on loan from Teletubbyland. The racetracks, blissfully, defy all engineering logic, and the cars flip and careen with 800-horsepower abandon (producer Joel Silver has dubbed the action sequences "Car Fu"). The time period is the 1960s seen through the nostalgic GAF View-Master of a 21st century graphic designer - it's future retro. The sensibility is Hot Wheels on industrial steroids. My inner 7-year-old was having atrial fibrillations.

There are people here, sort of. "Speed Racer" drops human actors into its breathless visual schema like drops of water on a hot griddle: Emile Hirsch as Speed, Christina Ricci as Trixie, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Mom and Pops. Hirsch is appropriately wooden - any trace of his "Into the Wild" passion has been sandblasted off - and Ricci appears to have lost more than 50 percent of her body weight; she's all chin and mischievous saucer-eyes. The movie's the wayward grandchild of "Tron," the 1982 Disney film that doodled primitive computer graphics over actors like Jeff Bridges.

The intentionally banal plot barely merits a mention, but here goes: Speed resists the enticements of a swishy, omnipotent tycoon (Roger Allam, channeling late-period Tim Curry) and schemes to expose him with the help of the not-so-mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox of "Lost," looking dandy in his bondage mask), Japanese racer Taejo (Rain), and the dauntless Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann). It's a corporate power fantasy about the evils of corporate power, basically; an irony the filmmakers flatten in their race to the finish.

"Speed Racer" screeches to a halt every so often for boilerplate inspirational speeches - reprised toward the end in a goofy, greatest-hits montage - and for cutesy slapstick involving Spritle (Paulie Litt) and the chimpanzees playing Chim-Chim (less amusing if you credit rumors of animal abuse on the German shooting locations).

Mostly, the Wachowskis rev the movie's motor in geometrically increasing RPMs, building inexorably to a climax that can only be described as NASCAR Zen orgasm. Aiming to replicate the experience of the anime on a metastasized scale, "Speed Racer" unsnaps the characters from the frame and lets them deliver their lines on floating multiple planes of action, constantly wiping this way and that like cars playing chicken on a crowded freeway. It's enthralling, and then it's exhausting, and it never lets up.

On the levels of technical craftsmanship and pure eye-candy, "Speed Racer" is some kind of triumph of the will. It has a knowing foot in pop art as well - the movie could be a Roy Lichtenstein canvas using pixels instead of zipatone dots. It's also thunderingly, proudly empty in a way that prompts either total submission or thoughts of resistance. The movie demands you be a glutton for sensation and then has the nerve to ask why you're not hungrier.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

Speed Racer

Written and directed by: The Wachowski brothers

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Roger Allam

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; and Jordan's IMAX, Reading and Natick

Running time: 129 minutes

Rated: PG (non-stop, seizure-inducing CGI action! Now now now! Go, Speed Racer, go!)

YOUNG MEN IN A HURRY

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