Speed Racer. Speed RACER. SPEED RACER!!!!
So I’ve been both looking forward to and dreading this movie. The first big budget Hollywood anime adaptation? (The Guyver with Mark Hamill does NOT count.) The zany Wachowski Bros.? There are so many ways this movie could and should fuck up. I paid my $12 to see it in IMAX (if I’m gonna fail, I’m gonna fail BIG) and plunked myself down 45 minutes early to make sure I got a decent seat. Turns out that even at a 9:45pm showing a ton of little kids show up with their parents. I gripped the armrests anxiously the whole time, my knuckles turning white as the kaleidoscopic opening credits began. Would the Wachowskis fuck up anime adaptations for the mainstream?
Speed Racer is a young up-and-coming race car driver in some sort of nutty futuristic-via-the-late-60s world where racing is, improbably, the most popular past-time. Having won his first major race with his trusty car, the Mach 5, and nearly clearing the track’s record time, he becomes an overnight star in the racing world and gets headhunted by a particularly competitive and well-endowed corporation to join its stable of “thoroughbred” race car drivers. Speed’s dad Pops Racer owns his own independent car manufacturing company, so the thought of joining forces with one of the big dogs strikes the entire Racer clan as sacrilege. Speed Racer refuses the offer, but the powerful CEO of the company threatens to destroy his family’s reputation if he doesn’t play by their rules. Speed, being honorable, refuses and sets out to find a way to make it in the racing world without selling his soul to corrupt corporations.
There’s a lot more than that including the involvement of an Interpol-esque crime-fighting agency with an adorably named Inspector Detector. There’s subplots with gangsters and stock prices and long lost brothers… It really distracts you from the fact that this movie’s story is actually pretty simple: Speed Racer trying to clean up the racing world. But it’s told in such a complicated, unnecessary way that at several points in the movie I was scratching my head trying to figure out what the hell was going on and why. If anyone can make a simple narrative spin out of control, it’s the Wachowskis. But then again, the writing is a great deal better than the original parody magnet.
The movie is full of their increasingly commonplace insane little tidbits, though. Like a ninja fight. Speed Racer and everyone else fights ninjas. (“More like non-jas!”) There’s even a screwy bit where in order to hide his identity from the ninjas, Racer X does some sort of bizarre scarf magic and wraps his face like he’s Sub-Zero or some shit. Sparky, the Racers’ steadfast mechanic, tells Speed Racer he pines for the cold milk (?!) they’ll drink in the victory lane and nearly convulses with orgasmic pleasure when he gets to partake. A rival race car driver, Snake Oil, cannot stop calling Speed Racer a “turd.” The evil CEO goes around bribing people to take out Speed Racer and comes to these gross, grubby viking/barbarian drivers and bribes them with fur pelts that they start sensuously rubbing all over their meat-stained faces. Someone plugs up a hole in a piranha aquarium with his own finger, to predictably gory results. Racer X fights against gangsters that have their own mobile gangster truck FORTRESS. There’s also trademark Wachowski philosophizing, asking deep questions like, “What is racing?” and “Why do I drive?” Existential stuff. Some might look at all these in a negative light, but as you might remember, we love a good bit of absolutely bizarre behavior in our big budget movies. (You’ll always be in our hearts, Old Gay Butler from Spider-Man 3.)
The characters are well-defined, but fairly bland. Speed Racer is your typical heroic protagonist with a strong sense of justice and a single-minded focus on racing. Pops is his mechanical genius father who’s fairly rough around the edges when dealing with others and has a problem containing his temper. Spritle is Speed’s mischievous little brother who’s always getting him into trouble along with his chimpanzee companion Chim Chim. Trixie is the supportive, spunky love interest who thinks Speed cares more about cars than he does about her. Racer X is stern and mysterious. Mom Racer loves her family! None of them grow too much as characters.
But that’s okay because plot and character development don’t mean shit in this movie. The big draw of this move is its luscious visual style. Everything is in loud, bright, over-saturated color in retro-futuristic cool environments. Most of the movie was done with the actors in front of a green screen, and at times you can totally tell that it was made that way, but I didn’t care and neither will you. The racing segments, this movie’s bread and butter, are phenomenal. Breathtaking. What The Matrix did for the visual vocabulary of movies in 1999, Speed Racer is doing again in 2008. Moving all the action to green screen helped the Wachowskis eschew traditional filmmaking techniques in order to really move things to the next level. Cars swerve about with no regard for physics. Race tracks are impossible helices and corkscrews and sheer drops. Scenes are transitioned with faces wiping the screens and dramatic speeches are punctuated with urgent motion lines speeding behind the characters.
Speed Racer was adapted from the Japanese manga Mach GoGoGo. (To fully appreciate the pun in the title, you need to understand that “go” is the number “5” in Mach 5, the Japanese protagonist’s name and the English command “go.”) It was adapted by the legendary Tatsunoko Productions into an anime that was then adapted by America into Speed Racer. This movie nails the original series’ anime style. The Wachowskis dabbled in anime conventions with their bold special effects and carefully posed shots in the Matrix movies, but they turn it up even more here. At times it really does feel like you’re watching a living anime. Especially when Spritle and Chim Chim jump into their television show, a Fist of the North Star parody, and start acting it out. Or during the absolutely awesome fight between the Racer clan and the gangsters in the mountain pass. Or… damn. There’s so many parts in this movie that just FEEL like they were pulled from the pages of a manga. This is going to stay one of the most visually dynamic, arresting and interesting movies I’ve seen for a good while, I suspect.
The acting is a mixed bag. Most of the main people do an okay job, sometimes dipping into mediocrity. Emile Hirsch tries so HARD to make Speed Racer into a three dimensional human being that you can see it on his face whenever he has to deliver an impassioned monologue about how much racing means to him or whatever. But it doesn’t work. Speed is your typical static character and that’s the way he’s always been. Christina Ricci gives Trixie a bit more of an adventurous edge than I remember, and she’s a good deal less whiny. She crafts Trixie with enough care that she’s an extremely appealing character without having to be all that deep. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon do an all right job as Speed’s parents, with more props going to Goodman for just plain having more to do and making more of it. If I recall correctly, Speed’s mom isn’t in the source material, so Susan just sort of sits on the sidelines most of the movie worrying about Speed’s safety and gives him a pep talk about how much she loves him when he’s down in the dumps. Meh.
There were some surprising stand-outs in the cast, though. Matthew Fox is a good actor, although sometimes it’s hard to remember since the character he plays on LOST is often such a douchebag. He’s got the talent and although for most of the movie, Racer X stays a very stoic, one-note character, at the end he’s given a chance to show his chops. He gives a look that shows just how completely emotionally destroyed his character is that it actually becomes a bit jarring considering how little personality was put into Racer X for the majority of the movie. The actor that plays Spritle, Paulie Litt, is a bit of a gem, as well. He looks like a 30 year old trapped in a 9 year old’s body and acts like one, too. He almost literally channels the cartoon character, giving really fantastic, vivid facial expressions and totally relishing in the character’s puckish nature. And he’s about 90% less annoying than the original, too.
The rest of the cast is just bizarre. It’s like everyone outside of the Racer family in this world has a ridiculous accent. Their nemesis, the evil race car company CEO, played by Roger Allam, is just the sort of scene-chewing villain that works well in summer movies. He seems to be born playing people that give arrogant monologues, since he was also that obnoxious conservative talk show host in V For Vendetta. The other notable cast member is Stephen Colbert’s arch-nemesis, Korean pop star Rain. He overacts the hell out of every scene, sometimes I think just to make up for the fact that he has a nigh-incomprehensibly thick accent. Which could go for so much of the cast. I don’t know what kind of Eurotrash outlet mall the Wachowskis’ casting director shops at for actors, but it must have an undeniably odd selection. One of the announcers at the end looks just. like. Niko Bellic, the protagonist in Grand Theft Auto IV. There’s also a large amount of Asian cast members. Probably because they recognize that this film’s likely to have a lot of appeal over there due to its manga/anime roots and they want as much star power as they can muster.
Michael Giacchino’s score is playful and fun. It’s not every day a composer gets to work with a theme song as infectious and fun as the original Speed Racer‘s, so you can tell he had a lot of fun rearranging it and mixing it into some different pieces throughout the movie. It’s a very solid score, but not one with any really memorable pieces, unfortunately. The remake of the theme song during the credits by Ali Dee and the Deekompressors is neat, mixing in some classic sound bytes from the series along with the tunes. Too bad about the rapping, though.
So as you can tell I have a bunch of love for this movie. What gives? I know, I’m a grump! This movie is getting SLAUGHTERED by critics. And scanning through the bile, I have to wonder if they saw the same movie I did. How can you be turned off by the wild maelstrom of sights and sounds this movie offers? Then I realize something. These are the same critics that get big Metal Gear Solid-style question marks above their heads whenever they review an anime movie. Then I understand. There’s some sort of cultural or stylistic gap separating them from enjoying it. They don’t seem to either understand or appreciate anime, as a medium. And just scanning through the list of negative reviews I can see at least one condescending comparison to video games. (Can the phrase “MTV generation” be far behind?) Anime has almost always valued visual pop and pizazz just as much as (or sometimes more than) story and character development.
So this brings me to the part of the review where I have to explain why I can loathe fluffy summer popcorn flicks and yet greatly enjoy this movie. Because that’s what Speed Racer is. It’s a popcorn movie. You pay your money to see a spectacle and that’s exactly what you get. But maybe it’s like this: A ton of movies use the “popcorn movie” umbrella as an excuse. “Look, who cares if the movie’s shallow and incomprehensible? We put millions of dollars into the special effects and car chases and Megan Fox’s cleavage!” Except that that stuff usually isn’t done with an iota of the charm or creativity or inventiveness of Speed Racer. Speed Racer doesn’t use its popcorn movie status as an excuse. It makes it its MISSION. It WILL do everything in its power to entertain each and every one of you. Which sometimes leads to some minor downfalls. Trying to do the summer movie thing of pleasing every possible demographic you can leads to moments like Spritle showing up to issue a cootie warning right before Speed kisses Trixie. Stumbling blocks on my way to enjoying the movie, to be sure.
If I judged this movie on its acting or plot or characters, it’d be very mediocre. But this isn’t a mediocre movie. It’s an incredible, almost visionary one. But not in the same way as, say, There Will Be Blood. It’s an incredible effects movie. And I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment. If you have any curiosity at all for this movie, I strongly suggest going to a theater that has an IMAX screen and getting the full experience. And then maybe wash it all down with a cold milk afterwards!