Greed Racer

11 Nov 2014 | 01:59

    Speed Racer Directed by The Wachowski Brothers

    Hollywood’s reliance on comic books and TV shows as source material doesn’t simply cater to arrested adolescence; it’s about cajoling consumers into a state of permanent adolescence. Both Speed Racer and Iron Man are the latest dreadful examples.

    The Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer comes in Tootsie Pop colors with gobbledygook at its center. (Call it The Matrix IV.) When teenage car enthusiast Speed Racer himself (Emile Hirsch) gushes that “Racing hasn’t changed, and it never will!” or his he-man idol Racer X (Matthew Fox) advises, “You don’t jump into a QB8 to  become a driver, you do it because you’re driven!” it recalls the pseudo-philosophy of The Matrix—only this time combining the kids and college student demographic. Nostalgia for the pre-anime ’70s TV-cartoon series locks audiences into perpetual cultural regression.

    Has TV won? Speed Racer kills cinema with its over-reliance on the latest special effects, flattening drama and comedy into stiff dialogue and blurry action sequences. It really is like watching the world’s biggest HD television screen—not the visionary advance of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. If today’s filmgoers even know those landmarks, the Wachowskis and the hype machine they command have facilitated the shift away from cinema to digital-video; this film’s probable success will confirm whether cinema values survive amidst kiddie-consumer glee.

    The narrative cliffhanger about Speed winning the fantastical Grand Prix with a souped-up “interpositive transponder” is less gripping than questions raised by the film’s thinned-out aesthetics and shrill sensibility—the crude, sugar rush of candy colors that the Wachowskis mistake for ingenuity. Speed Racer employs CGI to such extremes that it reverses Disney’s old-time anthropomorphism; the Wachowski’s adaptation simplifies people into cartoons. Named to evoke pubescent anxiety, Speed idolizes his phallus-figure big brother Rex (Scott Porter). After seeing Rex killed in a racing accident (on TV), Speed’s skills are coveted by Royalton (Roger Allam), an effete, unscrupulous auto-racing tycoon treacherously fixated on sponsoring the Grand Prix’s winning car. Royalton threatens young Speed with the assertion: “All that matters is power and the unassailable might of money!” Here’s where the Wachowskis’ naiveté is revealed: Nothing in the movie’s style challenges Royalton’s credo. The film’s budget is on the screen along with the Wachowski’s reduction of art to capitalist product. The big race scenes where Speed outguns multi-ethnic competitors who use any means of obstruction and destruction deliberately debase the famous 1959 Ben-Hur chariot race—from realism to digital unrealism. TV’s original Speed Racer series introduced kids to the stylization of anime, but the Wachowskis further it into a distortion of real experience. As in The Matrix, the Wachowskis trivialize the satisfactions of story, emotion, experience and recognizable humanity.

    To be dazzled by Speed Racer’s look is to be an ADD consumer. It has Thunderbird’s yellows; Cat in the Hat’s storybook skies; the synthetic surfaces of The Incredibles; Dick Tracy’s artificial color fields; the unreal, mechanical brightness of Pixar’s Cars; and the extravagance of the last three Star Wars prequels. None of this over-stimulation rivals the robust human touch of Joseph Kahn’s underrated Torque. These intensely unnatural colors don’t refer to fantasy (like Jacques Demy’s hyper-romantic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg); they merely reiterate TV-cartoon artificiality. Watching the actors declaim before green-screen backgrounds recalls that Matrix sense of humans lost in an altered dimension. Some race scenes look like pinball, others like video games—including the speed lines, heat vapors and blurred-time effects from comic books.

    This state-of-the-art surface has no matching radical form; at two hours plus, its overlong whimsy drowns out the hollow boosterism about racing and family tradition. There’s a slap-happy fight scene between Speed’s clan and clownish British villains. A drag strip competition devoid of morality or spirituality becomes just cold ambition—Speed seeking celebrityhood. Over all, there’s the drab, sinking feeling of Matrix 3—that the Wachowskis’ lame, expensive imaginings have played out. The only truly clever designs are the zoetrope zebras on side panels of the Grand Prix track, followed by cars leaping off the track like flying fish. Most of these kaleidoscopic images are not fantastic; they merely represent the dizzying spin of capitalism.

    American kids are bred to enjoy capitalism’s excess and speed past ethics. Iron Man is a dispiriting attempt to apply superficial principles to inherently silly kid culture. At the moment Iron Man’s genius, weapons-inventor, tycoon-scion and down-low superhero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his secretary-assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) have a lover’s spat, comes the awkward moral reckoning: “You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction.” It makes Iron Man the first ironic summer blockbuster. Director Jon Favreau and his serious-actor cast are not biting the hand that pampers them; rather, Iron Man’s conscientious pretense weighs down any comic-book-movie thrill with self-conscious liberal guilt.

    To wit: Stark’s complicity with American industry and politics (he’s celebrated on covers of Time, Forbes, Rolling Stone) gets him labeled “the most famous mass murderer in the history of America.” Visiting Afghanistan, he’s held hostage after being hit by one of his own bombs, then he's kidnapped by unnamed enemies. Stark’s heart gets replaced by a thermo-magnetic engine that deflects the shrapnel in his body. This crippling awakens his social-political awareness (“I had become comfortable with a system accustomed to zero accountability”) and compels him to create his superhero alter-ego, Iron Man, who not only fights an unspecified war on terror (a Taliban-like villain sneakily utters “Halliburton”) but opposes the greedy capitalist Obediah Stane (Jeff Bridges), a Dick Cheney-father figure who wants to rule the world.

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    Iron Man Directed by Jon Favreau

    All this political commentary makes Iron Man less fun than it ought to be—and yet, not as meaningful as it needs to be. The film’s political allegories are routine comic-book stuff but Favreau (director of the flatflooted Elf) is incapable of creating a satirical vibe. Stark’s wealthy lifestyle (mountaintop mansion, private jet) and expensive hobbies (using a nuclear-capacity laboratory that resembles a movie set) are grimly purposeful. His luxe lacks the sparkle of irony. When playboy Stark beds a reporter-groupie (“I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair,” he jokes), the jilted journalist turns into a Helen Thomas–style muckraker. She snaps back “Is this what you call accountability?”

    Side by side with Speed Racer, this effort to produce an “adult” (hip) comic book movie is insipid. Iron Man tries to justify the frivolity of blockbuster franchise moviemaking by putting a haunted American guilt-tripper at its center. Despite his witty rep, Downey (buffed-up) is sardonic without mirth. Is he having a Zodiac hangover or just copying Pacino in his crusading roles? And when Stark suffers post-traumatic distress, it unfortunately looks like he's going through detox: with the dilated pupils and anguished, rather than determined, grimaces. (Keanu Reeves in the recent Street Kings brings a preferable lighter touch to this kind of thing.) Even the sequence of Stark’s superhero suiting-up comes off dour. The hardware assembly of Iron Man’s red and gold, metal and urethane uniform (The Iron Giant meets RoboCop) is a reverse striptease. It ought to be techno-erotic—a truly ironic triumph of industry like the metamorphoses in Transformers—but Favreau lacks Michael Bay’s action-movie panache and ebullience. There’s not a single beautiful image.

    Underneath snippets of Black Sabbath’s Led Zep knock-off track “Iron Man,” Favreau launches grindingly unwitty (and ungrateful) aspersions on American might. This is not the way to improve a junk-movie genre or upgrade the cultural sea change that has made TV shows and comic books the primary source for feature films. Fans who grew up reading Iron Man now receive the same snark of Mike Nichols’ horrendously slick Charlie Wilson’s War; such facile political guilt being the current Hollywood Liberal standard. But it lacks the emotional, kinetic power of De Palma’s The Fury where father-son legacy, mixed with political chicanery, was a compressed, emotionally intensified version of Tony Stark’s dilemma. (Ambivalent about his father’s work on The Manhattan Project, he’s paranoid like Robin Sanza.)

    Fact is, Iron Man lacks ideological depth and thoroughness—what college-age readers found in George Bernard Shaw’s militarism comedy Major Barbara. Stark and Pepper Potts move in for the clinch, but they never really argue the benefits of the Military Industrial Complex; they’re just chagrined—like conscience-stricken drones in the Hollywood Industrial Complex. That’s how this lackluster blockbuster came to be. Instead of a thinking-kid’s sci-fi film, Iron Man dumbs-down Major Barbara for post-literate geeks.