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Film Review: Speed Racer

Speed Racer (2008; Directed by the Wachowski Brothers)

On its face, the Wachowskis’ furious, candy-coloured CG-powered film adaptation of the retro-hip 1960s Japanese manga/anime series about fantastical auto racing is entirely absurd. Since there doesn’t initially appear to be much to Speed Racer beyond this surface, it’s tempting to dismiss it purely on the basis of this absurdity. This would be unfortunate, however. Speed Racer is a shiny trifle rendered as a rainbow-spectrumed Pop Art motion masterpiece, crafted with care, imagination, and humour, written and acted with surprising eloquence and integrity. It’s far better than it strictly needs to be, which might explain its failure to catch fire with audiences or critics upon its release (though it has gained a cult following subsequently).

Another explanation for its cool initial reception might lie in its overly-complex plot, which carries some consistent themes along for the full ride but can stop and start less like a revving race car than a sputtering old jalopy. Titular racer (and Racer) Speed (Emile Hirsch) drives fast race cars as a hereditary inheritance, but also in pursuit of family redemption. His elder brother Rex (Scott Porter) was also a top racer in the World Racing League (WRL) and inculcates Speed into a love of cars and of the sport, somewhat against the protective instincts of their parents (John Goodman as Pops and Susan Sarandon as Mom). But Rex purportedly died in a fiery crash during a notoriously dangerous rally race while also trying to clean up the dirtier corners of the high-stakes sport. His loss is an unhealed wound in the Racer family, but it also drives Speed to match or even surpass Rex’s accomplishments, all while resisting and even defeating the forces of corruption that brought low the elder brother and are arrayed now against the younger.

The representatives of these forces are numerous: antagonistic drivers august and respected to sneering and underhanded, mobster-esque race-fixers and their armed goons, even black-clad ninja assassins. Paramount among them is the patrician E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam, an ascoted Christopher Hitchens lookalike), CEO of the massive corporate conglomerate Royalton Industries who courts Speed as a potential recruit for the well-funded Royalton racing team in the WRL. Speed’s decision about Royalton’s offer will have far-reaching consequences for himself and his family, and sets up Speed Racer‘s central thematic dichotomy between win-at-all-costs hegemonic corporatism and plucky family-driven small enterprise. The Wachowskis visually contrast this dichotomy during a montage of big-race preparations: servants place overflowing plates of decadent hors d’oeuvres on refreshment tables in the Royalton offices while Mom hands out homemade sandwiches to her hard-working mechanic clan in the family garage.

The corporate corruption angle gains a whole other subplot facet that swallows the whole second act, as well. White-collar crime investigator Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) convinces Speed to join forces with rookie Japanese racer Taejo Togokahn (Rain) and the mysterious masked Racer X (Matthew Fox) to win the Casa Cristo 5000, the notorious rally race that claimed Rex Racer’s life. A victory for Taejo will convince the golden boy, whose father is a corporate rival of Royalton’s, to hand over vital evidence of Royalton malfeasance to the Inspector that could result in an indictment and save the Racers from the racing business titan’s vengeful fury.

Amidst all of this narrative dumpery, I haven’t even found time to mention the other half of the Racer family unit: Speed’s live-in girlfriend and sometimes fellow driver Trixie (Christina Ricci), his friend and mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), and his junk-food-addicted younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt). The puckish Spritle also has a pet chimpanzee named Chim Chim, and they do many very silly things.

This may seem like too much plot exposition, too many characters, too many substories, just too much. But you’ll honestly only barely notice how much information is attempting to weigh down Speed Racer. The Wachowskis bathe in the generalize excess: their bright, cartoonish colour palette, manga-influenced compositions, montages, and transitions, and the breathless anime homages of their fight and race sequences keep the movie humming at such a clip that expository sag never really sets in. If there is a complaint to be made about Speed Racer‘s structuring, it’s that the detour into the Taejo/Racer X mission turns the lengthy, multi-part Casa Cristo rally race sequence (which begins in a neon-hued Istanbul-like Eastern metropolis, moves through desert dunes, mountainous hairpins, and ice caves, and includes two separate hand-to-hand confrontations with ninjas and gangsters, respectively) into a more significant-seeming racing scene showcase than the much-teased climax in the more prestigious WRL Grand Prix. That Speed’s Rex-related baggage is a more active thematic element in Casa Cristo (the race which spelled the elder Racer brother’s end) lends it greater weight and importance as well.

The Grand Prix is still the movie’s rousing, thrilling climax, though, and features an explosive, triumphal, near-psychedelic finish-line moment that can only be described as quite literally orgasmic. The Wachowskis (writers as well as directors) seed the Grand Prix with personal meanings for Speed connected to his parents, rather than Casa Cristo’s fraternal associations. Speed watching a famously close Grand Prix finish with Pops after Rex’s passing mends their bond and retrenches their shared dedication to auto racing, while Mom expresses her awe, pride, and appreciation of Speed’s masterful artistry on the racetrack, of which his performance in the Prix is the defining display. No matter the goofy candy-striped kid-friendly blockbuster they find themselves in, Goodman and Sarandon bring as much of their thespianic abilities as are needed to sell these moments alongside Hirsch. They lend the closing race a tone of unanticipated heft, as a result.

This emotional integrity, this baseline thematic strength, is interesting in terms of Speed Racer‘s overt Pop Art stylistic choices. Pop Art borrowed (stole, frankly) and repurposed commercial imagery, the visual language of corporate production and advertising, as a self-aware, ironic artistic commentary on saturation-level American capitalist consumerism. There is nothing ironic about the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Its Pop Art visual trappings are deployed for their pure sugar-high pleasure rush, and function to give a sparkling gloss and sheen to a simple but surprisingly potent narrative of family love and the sheer joy of sport. Hegemonic corporatism takes its deserved lumps in Speed Racer, but never is it allowed to annex excitement, colour, or happiness for ulterior motives. Maybe, then, this movie isn’t quite so superficial or absurd after all.

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