I was as dazzled by the visuals in Speed Racer’s initial promotional materials, teasers, and trailers as anyone. But as is always the case with such things, there’s the nagging suspicion that the film will be nothing more than such, and that the film won’t live up to the razzle-dazzle. And the fact that the Wachowski Brothers were behind Speed Racer’s camera only made that suspicion worse. I don’t think the Matrix films were shallow by any means, but arguably, the brothers had definitely placed everything but sheer visual spectacle on the backburner by the trilogy’s end.
And when you’ve got the folks behind such films working on a children’s movie that is a remake of a Japanese animé series that, classic status notwithstanding, is more often the butt of jokes than anything else, well, let’s just say that I totally understand folks’ hesitation.
But the thing is, they’d be absolutely wrong.
Ever since he was a kid, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) has been obsessed with cars and car racing. However, the Racer family has fallen on hard times. Speed’s older brother Rex — whom Speed idolizes — is dead, killed in a tragic racing accident after being disowned by Pops. Speed is now the family’s sole driver, and he’s doing all he can to keep the family’s fortunes afloat. Thankfully, Speed is an almost preternaturally gifted racer himself, and has been making bigger and bigger waves in the racing world.
Which catches the eye of E. P. Arnold Royalton, head of Royalton Industries, a massive conglomerate that is one of the world’s biggest racing sponsors. Royalton extends a very generous offer to Speed, but the young driver, fearful of what such a deal might mean for his family’s independence and values, declines. Royalton sneers at the young man’s naïveté and idealism, and exposes him to the massive corruption within the racing world while simultaneously threatening his racing career and life.
The only way to survive Royalton’s threats is to team up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), an enigmatic — and eerily familiar — driver who is working to bring racing’s criminals to justice, and Taejo Togokhan (Rain), a Japanese driver whose only concern is to save his family’s company. Against Pops’ wishes, Speed enters the Casa Cristo, the incredibly dangerous cross-country race that claimed the life of his brother Rex so many years ago. But it’s the only thing that Speed can do to save his family and the sport that he loves.
The film gets off to a bit of a slow start, intercutting shots of Speed gearing up for a race with all manner of flashbacks and whatnot to provide all of the necessary backstory. It’s an interesting approach in theory, but all of the intercuts and flashbacks do become a bit tedious. However, after that, the film just takes off and I found myself thoroughly engrossed.
For starters, the Wachowskis have created nothing short of a parallel world, one in which almost everything in society revolves around automobile racing. Combine that racing-centric approach with something of a timewarp in which everything has been stuck in a super-glossy version of the future as imagined in the 1950s, and you get the basic idea of what the Wachowskis are going for.
However, they then ramp that up by fully adopting the animé aesthetic for their live-action film. And as longtime animé fan, it was great to see a film that truly managed to become a “live action animé.” The Wachowskis certainly flirted with this on the Matrix films, and Japanese films such as Cutie Honey and Casshern have appropriated the style and filmic language of animé. But I don’t think it’s been done nearly as well as it has here. There’s no doubt that such an approach is a divisive thing — a quick perusal of RottenTomatoes will reveal that — but I totally respect that the Wachowskis stuck to their aesthetic guns the way that they did.
There’s a sense of hyperreality to the film — of going so far over the top that the “over the top-ness” itself becomes substantial and “real.” Again, the Wachowskis played with this a bit in the Matrix films, but they’ve really ramped it up for Speed Racer. The visual onslaught does take a little getting used to — those early action scenes are still a bit of a blur in my memory. However, I quickly became used to them, and the latter scenes become surprisingly coherent, not to mention thrilling. In other words, they’re a far cry from Stephen Colbert’s comparison to being stuck in an industrial dryer with eighty pounds of fireworks. (For a fascinating look at the film’s visuals from a graphic designer’s perspective, check out Khoi Vinh’s analysis.)
One of the more interesting aspects of the action sequences is the car combat. Like The Matrix, there is plenty of martial arts combat in Speed Racer. But the combatants are the cars themselves, as they spin and leap and dive through the air with tires and weapons a-spinning, doing their best to knock one another out of the race. On paper, it’s pretty ridiculous, but within the context of the film’s parallel world, it makes sense — and it looks pretty sweet to boot.
However, the film is much more than dazzling, seemingly incoherent visuals. The film’s more dramatic, family-oriented moments — those moments that are oriented around the Racer family and their trials and exploits — are surprisingly touching. Yes, they’re as over-the-top as the visuals, but by wearing their hearts on their sleeves so fully, they achieve the same kind of “hyperreality.” Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a new father myself, but I actually found myself getting a little choked up during Speed and Pops’ talk in the film’s final act, and the scenes of the family working together to build cars — or take out ninjas — have their own particular charm.
And I’d be remiss not to mention the exploits of Spritle, Speed’s little brother, and his monkey pal Chim-Chim. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m normally opposed to little kid shenanigans in any form. But some of the film’s funniest moments belong to this little dynamic duo, from their reactions and pratfalls to their reenactment of a kung-fu duel from their favorite cartoon (which gives the Wachowski’s yet another time to ramp up the animé aesthetic). And Spritle’s relationship with Speed creates a fairly touching parallel to Speed’s relationship with Rex, which comes into its own in the film’s final act.
There are many critics who have trashed the film mercilessly, but by doing so, they hold it up to standards that neither the film, nor the filmmakers, ever pretend the film is trying to attain. Is Speed Racer a film that I want to watch for deep thoughts concerning family, identity, corporate greed and corruption, youthful idealism, and so on? Not at all, even though those themes are certainly there in the film, and provide the film with a little more resonance than many are giving it credit for.
When taken for what it is — a movie built from the spare parts of animé, music videos, video games, 60’s sci-fi kitsch, James Bond movies, Star Wars, Willy Wonka, and who knows what else, as Josh Hurst puts it — Speed Racer is an undeniable treat. Not the healthiest or most thought-provoking treat, to be sure, but an incredibly fun and satisfying treat nevertheless.