Speed Racer review
Speed Racer, the Lana and Andy Wachowski's 2008 film based off the revolutionary Japanese anime series of the same name, never had a chance. Released only a week after the first Iron Man, Speed Racer bombed badly in Marvel's shadow, not even coming close to surpassing its $120 million dollar budget. Worse, reviews were mostly mixed at best and dismissive at worst; Rotten Tomatoes blurb about the film includes terms like "headache inducing special effects" and "lack of coherent storyline." Like I said, it never had a chance. And what a shame; while Speed Racer isn't a film without flaws, it's nowhere near the disaster film it was made out to be. In fact, with an open mind and a deeper look, dare I say that Speed Racer may be a classic waiting to be unearthed.
18 year old Speed (Emile Hirsch) has everything going for him; he's an up and coming driver in the WRL for his parents (John Goodman and Susan Surandon), he's dating his childhood sweetheart Trixie (Christina Ricci) and he's starting to receive offers from major racing teams. Everything changes however after he rejects an offer to join Royalton Industries, the world's top racing team. Angered by Speed's rejection, the company's ruthless chairman (Roger Allam) vows to end Speed's budding career and his family's reputation if he doesn't play ball. Speed instead decides to join the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and the troubled Taejo (Japanese pop star Rain) in order to take Royalton down and expose his companies corruption, culminating in the historic Grand Prix race.
Even the most fervent detractors of the Wachowski siblings cannot deny how ambitious their work is. Speed Racer is no different. On the surface, many likely saw the film as an effects driven kids film; in reality, the Wachowski's have created a coming of age sports story about a talented young man trying to make his mark in his profession. Themes of the importance of family and the evil of capitalism haunt this film, the latter being explored to a great and effective extent. Look no further than a scene early in the film, where Royalton (having just been rejected by Speed) reveals to the protagonist that racing has been fixed for generations and that the art and legitimacy of the sport pale in comparison to filling ones pockets. Similar political posturing arguably hurt the Wachowski's in their previous work, most notably the impressive but politically juvenile V for Vendetta. Here, it's played so over the top that it works, especially in launching the film towards its second act. Before Royalton's outburst, it's unclear what Speed Racer entirely wants to be. After it the film's goal can be seen clear as day.
Of course, the talking point for the Wachowski's has always been their handling of action sequences and visuals, and for the most part they nail it here. Wanting to pay homage to the original anime, the siblings present Speed Racer as if it were overdosing on color; everything about the film is fast paced, bright and vibrant, from the sunny flashbacks in the early stages to the neon drenched city and races. It's absolutely fascinating, and other than their vision of a futuristic Neo Seoul in the equally under appreciated Cloud Atlas, I don't think the Wachowski's have ever created a better world than the one we see here. Having said that, those looking for Matrix style action sequences will be disappointed. While the racing scenes are top notch, the relatively few fight scenes (definitely paying homage to the anime show) are more cartoonish than they are impressive. They aren't a massive detriment, but Speed Racer likely would've benefited from those scenes being cut.
One thing the Wachowski's got right was the cast. Veterans John Goodman and Susan Surandon are as reliable as ever as Speed's parents and are even allowed to be something more than just supportive (Goodman has several standout scenes where he goes toe to toe with Speed and Scott Porter's Rex Racer). Kick Gurry sadly has little to work with, but he adds some nice comedic moments as Speed's mechanic Sparky and has a nice moment with Speed right before the Grand Prix. Ricci, arguably the biggest star signed onto this film, is appropriately peppy and headstrong as Trixie. Even Rain, the Japanese pop star turned actor, leaves a good impression as a racer in way over his head. The only sore spot of the cast is Paulie Litt, who plays the role of Speed's younger brother Spritile. Aside from small roles in Doubt (2009) and The Lifeguard (2013), Litt has hardly acted since this role, and it's pretty clear why. He's horrible as Spritile, turning a comedy relief character into one of the most annoying creations in the history of film. Every time he or his chimpanzee side kick Chim Chim appear, Speed Racer threatens to go off the rails and become a parody of itself. While I understand these two appeared in the anime and have no issue with the Wachowski's trying to inject comic relief, this was a character the film would've been better off without.
The three best performances in the film however belong to Emile Hirsch, Roger Allam and Matthew Fox. Playing what would be his first and thus far only lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster, Hirsch brings an understated, cool, soulful presence for his performance as Speed. In a film playing with so much, the fact that Hirsch always stands out and becomes the film's heart and soul is a true accomplishment. Meanwhile, V for Vendetta's Allam chews scenery as the deliciously over the top Royalton, just finding the right line between top notch villain and cartoon character. And then there's Fox. Best known for the lead role in the hit TV show Lost, Fox gives the best performance of his career. In a role in which he's required to highlight a level of mystery, cool charisma and haunting regret, Fox nails all three and gets stronger the more the film peels Racer X's layers away. There are two scenes towards the end of the film where Fox is so good, you'll almost wish they had ended Speed Racer with them.
Like many unappreciated films Speed Racer isn't perfect. The film is sometimes too loyal to the source material for its own good and the poison pill combination of Spritle and Chim Chim are so bad that a film even somewhat weaker would've been wrecked by their presence. It's a credit to the rest of the film that Speed Racer isn't sunk by those flaws and instead emerges, at least in this writer's opinion, as a lost triumph. For kids, it's a fast paced thrill ride with a ton of race scenes and colors to enjoy. For adults, it's compelling story with something to say about sports, capitalism, family, and the desire for one to pursue their dreams regardless of the obstacles. Why Speed Racer isn't universally liked is understandable; why it was completely dismissed though is something I'll never quite understand; released five years earlier or five years later, I think it's easily recognized for the achievement it is. Here's hoping that in the next few years more people will look back and give it a chance. Those who do will be refreshed to see a blockbuster that was topical, awe inspiring, and willing to not take itself too seriously (even to a fault).