REVIEW: Speed Racer (2008)

With the first of multiple generations for whom merchandise-as-entertainment was fully an unironic, accepted part of youthful days coming to adulthood, reclaimed-nostalgia is BIG business in the world of Hollywood property-aquisition. Comic book superheroes who (mostly) originated in the 60s or earlier now occupy the lavishly-exalted place that Biblical Epics did in the showbiz of yesterday, and kitschy Saturday Morning fair of the 60s, 70s and 80s fill the shoes of popular-fiction adaptation – Stan Lee and Frank Miller as the new Lloyd C. Douglas (“The Robe,”) and Hannah Barberra as the new Daphne DuMaurier. Each new adaptation comes with higher and higher expectations, not just from investors and new audiences but from longtime fans hoping NOT ONLY for the movies to “live up” to the material they cherish but for it to make it as good for them NOW as they remember it being. It’s not just a movie ticket they’re buying, it’s a $10.50 pair of rose-colored glasses to look back on happier times for a little over 90 minutes.

And make no mistake, it’s a gamble: For every “Spider-Man” that successfully translates the spirit of it’s foundation, there’s a “Thunderbirds” that retroactively calls into question the very worth of it’s own progenitor. But how, exactly, is one to approach a nostalgia product for material who’s nostalgiac worth is hugely based on irony – i.e. when the primary reason something is remembered is for NOT being all that good? This is the quandry which was going to face whichever filmmaker(s) finally took the reins of producer Joel Silver’s long-gestating adaptation of “Speed Racer.”

One of the earliest examples of what’s now called Anime (Japanese animation) to make an impact stateside, the original “Speed Racer” was a re-edited, extra-loose translation of “Go Mifune,” a Japanese series that applied a native Manga-nese polish to the then-popular Western-import genre of auto-racing potboilers. As “Speed,” it transfixed American kids of the 60s with it’s crafty, convoluted narrative – at the time only “Jonny Quest” could match it for psuedo-serious cartoon plotting – but gained it’s lasting impact as a post-modern hipster touchstone ironically appreciated for it’s pop-art awkwardness and stilted, poorly-dubbed English dialogue. So, what we’re ultimately looking at here is a literal-adaptation of a mis-translation of a genre-reworking. So it somehow makes since that the final product comes courtesy of the Wachowski’s, who’ve had a similarly strange career trajectory – having gone from the edgy indie lesbian noir “Bound” to the landmark “Matrix” action blockbusters only to land now in the world of the Family Film.

You can call the film they’ve offered up in “Speed Racer” many things, but one word can’t be denied: Visionary. The term need not be a negative or a positive, it’s merely a descriptive indicating how singular, purposeful and personal the work on display appears to be: This is an unrestrained, uncompromised pop-art vision from start to finish, and it doesn’t just feel like the Wachowski’s most self-revealing, inwardly-powered film in almost a decade – it could easily be the most “auteur” blockbuster since “Lord of The Rings.” The Hollywood of the moment – the Hollywood where Christopher Nolan packs Batman movies with Academy Award winners, where Robert Downey Jr. and Nicholas Cage are action heroes and where a “red-hot” screenwriter is sought out to pen “Street Fighter” based on his drafts for “Voltron” and “He-Man” – is one where the traditional barriers between high-art and lowly-commercialism have been dashed to pulp, and “Speed Racer” is The Moment purified: It’s Andy Warhol painting a mural of Sonic the Hedgehog on the walls of the Parthenon.

Unfolding in a universe just slightly too fanciful to be called “futuristic” where, among other oddities, ultra high-tech Auto Racing seems to be the single most popular sporting/cultural event in existence, the narrative is built around simple characters in a complicated world: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the middle scion of the aptly-named, auto-centric Racer Family. Pops (John Goodman) is the one-man car-building wizard behind The Mach 5, a supercar with which Speed shares a zen-like man/machine bond and the trunk of which is frequently the hiding place of mischievous youngest son Sprittle and pet chimp Chim-Chim, while Mom (Susan Sarandon) keeps the garage humming on a steady supply of home-made pancakes. Also on hand is Trixie (Christina Ricci) Speed’s helicopter-pilot girlfriend.

The whole family-unit revolves around Speed’s career driving the Mach 5 in the hyper-competitive World Racing League, who’s tracks resemble nothing so much as Hot Wheels strips encompassing entire continents. He’s a man on a mission, driving not just for glory but to restore honor to the Racer family name after his beloved older brother Rex perished in a feiry crash amid allegations of shady doings years ago. Speed’s success and the Racers’ adamant refusal to become a corporate-sponsored race team places the family into bitter conflict with Royalton (Roger Hallam) an automotive tycoon who reveals that the WRL is actually a wholly-corrupt front used by robber-barons to manipulate the stock market and promises to make things VERY unpleasant for Speed if he doesn’t play along. At the same time, this gains Speed an ally in the person of enigmatic Racer X (Matthew Fox) a masked, leather-clad vigilante who uses his racing skills to combat corporate crime and who strikes Speed as awfully familiar…

ALL of this, just so you know, is played 100% straight. Save for the slapstick antics of Sprittle and Chim-Chim (who, for the record, are about as annoying as you either imagine or recall) the film takes it’s setting, story, characters and message totally at face value. The visual style – employing a candy-colored rainbow design asthetic, mimickry of Anime-style scene transitions and digitally-tweaked photography that seems to make everything appear in-focus regardless of depth-of-field – and the apparent direction of some actors (Fox and Hallam, in particular) to deliver their lines with the machine-gun statacco of 60s voice-dub actors – indicate that the Wachowskis are more than aware of how ridiculous the original “Speed” was AND their literal translation of it still is, but tonally any condescension is completely muted: A sitcom-perfect 1950s nuclear family team with an activist superhero to help bring down a stock-fixing cartel with by winning auto races… and the whole thing is played with the gravity and matter-of-fact import you usually only find in the third act of a Jesus Movie.

The whole point of the thing is visual insanity: Taking the most surreal conceits of the Wachowski’s belovedly-fetishized Anime fixation and translating them to live-action. Most movies that attempt a kind of universally-unreal construction (think “300” or “Sin City”) make an effort to DEFY reality, but here any such defiance happened before the curtain went up: “Speed Racer” obliterates reality in it’s opening moments and careens ahead without any regard for what “ought to be” plausible: Unlike the excerable “Transformers,” which took a similarly out-there cartoon creation and reduced it to generic dumbass-pandering action piffle, here’s a film that takes the broad strokes of the singularly-loathsome post-“Fast & The Furious” car-fetish genre and turns it into a expressionistic art piece.

At one point, when a Royalton crony vows to “take out” the Racers and the eventual result is a pitched battle between the whole family and a team of Ninjas, by that then it seems like the most logical thing in the world. The cars don’t just race and crash, they FIGHT like extensions of their human pilots: At one point, a driver (who also happens to be a Viking, just for the record) deploys a massive pair of chained-maces and cartwheels his vehicle through the air to swing them; and when Speed hits his zen-master “one-ness” with the Mach-5, the visuals unmistakably call to mind “2001’s” final transformative plunge – “My God… it’s full of Cars!!!”

But beyond the visual assault, what’s perhaps more bizzare is the collision going in the realm of sensibilities. Thematically, the Wachowski’s are still very much in the mode of “The Matrix” or “V For Vendetta” (which they produced) – fists raised, screaming “FIGHT THE POWER!!!” and reveling in the spectacle of The System crumbling at the rise of a messianic hero and his band of Rebel Outsiders. But whereas Neo found prison in the sterile conformity of the ordinary and freedom in the edgy company of leather-clad fetish-club superheroes, Speed’s evil-to-defy is Cynicism Incarnate (“Naive boy! Grow up!” spits Royalton frequently at his young nemesis) and his support-system of free-minded uber-rebels are… well, “The Cleavers,” basically.

It’s a conceit so brazenly out-there it can’t help but be charming. In meshing their peculiar sense of the Heroic Journey with the sincere desire to craft an unironic Family Film, the Wachowski’s have fashioned a world where iconic, almost kitschy tableaus like the Big Family Breakfast or Helpin’ Dad In the Garage are something like the defiant acts of fiercely-independent social rebels – Ozzie & Harriett as Morpheus and Trinity, PB&J and cold milk as the Red Pill and the White Rabbit, Norman Rockwell as Diego Rivera. And, so far as I can tell, it WORKS: Amid the preposterous car-stunts and the convoluted conspiracy story there’s a shockingly old-fashioned family dynamic here that carries a real since of genuine heart. Part of this, admittedly, is casting – could you ASK for a better Archetypal Mom n’ Pop than Susan Sarandon and John Goodman?

All of this, I realize, doesn’t really answer the fundamental question of whether it’s “good” or not. It’s a FASCINATING work of art, that much I can’t find any reasonable dispute for, but it’s definately not going to be something everyone can get their head around or even enjoy AFTER they get their head around it. Speaking only for myself, I found it dazzling, dizzying and occasionally even moving in a corny but affectingly-familiar way. The plain fact of the matter is, the Wachowski’s are here rebuilding the very notions of what an “action movie” OR “family movie” can or should be, and since it so frequently leaps into wholly-new territory it’s hard to really gauge how it’s all “working.” Heck, for all I really know it’s an incredibly-interesting total failure… but I just don’t get that vibe as of right now. I CAN most-definately say that it absolutely needs to be seen, for the one of the best reasons I can think of to see anything: Because you’ve never anything quite like it before. Reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 7/10 (I think.)

5 thoughts on “REVIEW: Speed Racer (2008)

  1. Eric F says:

    I agree completely with your review. I think we’ve become so fixed on making cartoons and comics become realistic that if the movie goes in a different direction, many of us aren’t prepared. Perhaps it’s like a music reviewer in the ’50s listening to that devilish Rock ‘n’ Roll for the first time?His approaching zen-master oneness is a scene in which I actually gasped as I witnessed the visual and aural representation of it as it happened.It wasn’t a perfect 10-movie, but like kids (and monkeys) in a candy store, I heard angels singing.-eforhan


  2. the-gel says:

    *nods* Excellent review.Not sure if you’re gonna read this or not, but I feel the need to say:The games are good.They seem suspicious at first (licensed games ONLY on Wii and DS?!), but both are actually quite good.The Wii one resembles the movie closest with it’s glowy tracks and unusual mixing of genres in it’s presentation (realistic cars, glowy tracks, comic-book sound effect bubbles, cartoon smoke, videogame explosions) and in-game banter between characters. It’s easily one of the best looking games on Wii and is actually more a beat ’em up on wheels than a racer! XD Yes, they actually recreate the “fighting with your car” thing as Car-Fu and by shoving your Wii Wheel in different directions you can preform different combat moves. Because of this emphasis on Car-to-Car Combat, the game rubberbands like crazy but since you actually get ranking points for beating up your opponents, you can actually win without ever touching first. Generally that feels like a way to balance it all out. Also, in an attempt to recreate the trippy look of the movie, boosting 4 times in a row causes Jeff Minter to travel back in time and take over development of the game.Only downer is that there’s very little content for a full price game (only 5 stages with 3 tracks each).The DS game is more focused on stunts and has more content, but isn’t as close to the movie. Still, it has tighter control and REALLY impressive graphics and speed! It essentially is filling the F-Zero/Wipeout niche.Sorry to randomly vomit reviews at you, but with good licensed games being a rarity and Spped Racer being the kind of movie you’d WANT to play a videogame of…yeah! XD


  3. Wes says:

    This is an incredibly good review. I don't know if you'll see this, but here goes full disclosure. I went out tonight looking for a new friend on blogspot and my most guilty pleasure of all guilty pleasure movies is Speed Racer. I love it. I watch it when I'm out of new movies to watch. I wrote a 14 page paper (taking it totally seriously) about it for fun a couple summers ago. I imagine you're not as invested in it as I am, but your review made me very happy to see that there's someone that isn't as mindlessly invested in it as I am who also liked it. I dunno I'm tired. Thank you for the great review and for appreciating what I see as a vastly under appreciated film.


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