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'Speed Racer': It's Hell, Wachowski Style, on Wheels

Speed Racer looks — and sounds — a bit different than he did in his 1960s TV incarnation. Souped up, tuned up and digitally tarted up for its big-screen, big-budget debut, his Mach 5 racer flips and flashes, zooms and careens, sparks and slides sideways, leaps barriers and loops the loop, cheerfully defying every law of physics you've ever heard of.

Gravity? What's that? Centrifugal force? The Second Law of Thermodynamics? (Actually I don't know much about that last one, but I'm confident in saying it doesn't apply here.)

So how can something look so bright, move so fast and be so dull? Oh, right, the Wachowski brothers are involved. They're the guys who made The Matrix, then followed it up with technically sophisticated movies (V for Vendetta, anyone?) notable mostly for being loud, paranoid, simple-minded and dark.

Speed Racer marks a major change in that formula: It's not dark. It's hyperbright, with colors so lurid they'd vibrate even if nothing were in motion. Of course, everything is in motion: People standing still whoosh across the frame. Painted zebras gallop on the racetrack's walls. The trick to zipping safely through all this? As all-time champ Rex Racer explains to his little brother Speed: "Close your eyes and listen."

Now, that's a thought. But if you close your eyes and listen, you'll hear the dialogue, which thuds about as often as the bad guys' cars do. At least I think they're the bad guys' cars, though it's hard to tell at times; for all those potentially seizure-inducing visuals, Speed Racer is never easy to follow, even with a story that can be summed up as "family good, corporate conglomerate bad." (This from Warner Bros., part of the world's biggest media conglomerate.)

To his credit, Speed Racer himself seems unfazed by all the flash and bother. He's played by Emile Hirsch, who has previously looked uncannily like Leonardo DiCaprio but who here looks uncannily like Ray Liotta. (Which isn't really a good trade.) He's surrounded by fine actors whose chief contribution is that they resemble the line drawings they're replacing.

Since actors perform entirely in front of green screens, with everything else painted in digitally, Speed Racer is really just substituting one form of animation for another. No doubt that marks a thrilling advance of some sort, if you're a tech geek — or 9 years old.

If not, here's hoping that — after subjecting yourself to eyeball-lacerating visuals, earsplitting sounds and mind-numbing product placement for what amounts to six back-to-back Speed Racer TV episodes at one sitting — you don't have to drive home right away.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.