In 1999, a landmark year for American cinema all around, but especially with regards to studio filmmaking, Andy and Larry Wachowski — who had previously scripted Assassins and directed only 1996’s small-scale crime thriller Bound — set the sci-fi adventure genre on its head with The Matrix, a labyrinthine, parallel-world shoot-’em-up in which Keanu Reeves’ office drone unlocks the power within in a manner in which Tony Robbins could have never dreamed. Their latest movie is Speed Racer, a colorful, golly-gee-toned adaptation of the old Japanese import cartoon series.
The technical proficiency of the film is never in question; from frame one, the Wachowskis succeed in crafting an ecstatically eye-popping spectacle, buoyed by neon-tinted primary colors, extreme close-ups and wild, desert-set car chases in which automobiles pogo over one another to cool sound effects. All in all, I’m pretty sure Hunter S. Thompson had hallucinations like this.
Yet there’s an ineffable but chokingly pervasive sense that Speed Racer is, well, sort of a cop-out. Sure, it’s a family flick first and foremost, and not fair to judge based mostly on what it isn’t. Yet anyone in their teens or older is almost certainly going to have seen one or all of the Matrix movies before this, and the chief, whispering thought lodged in their brain, irrespective of whether they’re pleasantly surfing along on Speed Racer‘s surfeit of “cool,” is going to be, “Hmmmm… this is kind of tame.”
While its two 2003 sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both met with lukewarm-to-stinging critical reaction and more than a bit of fan-boy howling, they were undeniably of a piece with the original movie, stylistically and tonally. All three films were rated R, and dealt in explosions and hand-to-hand combat. The mixing of these base elements along with ample portions of armchair psychology and religious theory gave the movies a pop, a certain contrast to other genre flicks of their ilk.
The PG-rated Speed Racer, on the other hand, feels safe, and made of prefabricated parts. While sabotage and subterfuge are the name of the game within the plot, there’s nary a gun in sight. Which got me to thinking — unless it’s inherently part of the narrative (see David Lynch’s The Straight Story, or David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy), it’s nearly impossible for filmmakers with some sense of auteurish branding to go forward or backwards in rating by more than a single classification. It’s just inviting ruin, in a way. That’s why, rightly or wrongly, after the splash of cold water to the face that was bullet-time, Speed Racer feels like a water-treading ploy by the Wachowskis for wide-scale embrace. For the full piece, from FilmStew, click here.