In a world where drivers of consummate skill and daring steer super-charged racing machines across tableaus of light, color, and motion through tracks and stunts that defy the laws of physics themselves, one young man learns the cost of integrity pitted against the unassailable might of money.
Perspective: I don’t remember the movie in front of which this trailer premiered, but I do remember determining to see this film. The Wachowski name carried little weight in my mind, following hard on the heels of the disappointing Matrix sequels and the abysmal V for Vendetta. Nor was I attracted for sentimental reasons, the Speed Racer franchise is one of the few “old-school” anime I had never actually watched, and about whose mythos I knew nothing. I came into the movie tabula-rasa; while it came as something of a shock to discover that “Speed” is the name of the main character, it certainly set the tone for the rest of my expectations.
Background: The Speed Racer anime and manga revolves around the adventures of Speed, a teenaged, hot-shot, race car driver seeking his fortune on the international race car circuit. The distinctive cars and colorful character designs form the backbone of the series, and a lasting influence on pop culture that has seemingly been absorbed by osmosis into the collective geek unconscious. The Wachowski brothers take this imagery into the new millenium with their 2008 movie release, faithfully preserving the costuming and vehicles in their vision of the story.
Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass
The characters of Speed Racer are a cast of adults. Speed himself, a teenager in the anime, is a young man in his early twenties, just coming into the powers and responsibilities of adulthood. No gang of whiny, self-absorbed, angst-ridden tweens – these. Pops Racer is a man of passion, integrity, and optimism, qualities he passes to his sons with unerring clarity and dynamism. The primary dynamic is between family, and this is no selfish, dysfunctional Big Brother cast. These people disagree, often passionately, but respect each other and place other’s needs ahead of themselves. The maturity and responsibility exhibited by this cast of characters is a refreshing change from the over-sexed, self-absorbed, hugely-dramatic population of Twilight or JJ Abram’s Star Trek that is “all attitude, all the time.” This cast carries the audience through charisma, empathy, and admiration.
Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Speed Racer is about action, and the story delivers in spades. Clear-cut stakes, defining moments of glory and failure, and firm lines drawn between good and evil give us a solid adventure that doesn’t rely on twist-endings, contrived drama, or bait-and-switch tactics to keep the viewer interested. Little attention is paid to interpersonal angst; no attempt is made to employ complicated subplots. The big reveal is the payoff the rest of the movie has been charaging inexorably towards. The world of Speed Racer is so hyper-realistic that little seems beyond the scope of suspended disbelief. The action moves directly from goal to post in the most straightforward and logical manner possible – and Speed Racer never strays from the established logic of the story. In several places, the movie takes an abrupt left turn for the sake of forced comedy; Spritle is the primary culprit behind these jaunts, and his antics seem forced, awkward, and horribly distracting. In spite of this glaring flaw, the story that formes the core of the movie is solidly built.
Technical Merit (Pass/Fail) – Pass
The Wachowskis command of color, motion, and pacing is absolute. The directors use light, shadow, and color to merciless manipulate the audience’s perception of characters and emotions. Cars thunder around us in breathtakingly impossible action scenes. Scenery and set design reflects the hyper-realism that is their trademark. This world exists in some other time and place where reality appears wholly unfamiliar, but conforms to a set of rules the audience intuitively senses. Even when the audience is allowed to catch their breath while the plot advances inexorably towards its climax, the camera doesn’t sit still, pushing the story forward with the subtle sense of motion that is the main technical device used in the film. Costuming plays a huge part in the audience’s ability to immerse themselves in the film, blending anime designs with a stylish functionality one would expect on the streets of Tokyo or Hollywood. Unfortunately, where the directors fail, they fail big. Unaccountably poor green-screen sequences look positively shoddy next to the adrenaline filled racing sequences. CGI and practical effects blend seamlessly in all the important scenes, drawing unwarranted attention to the slipshod FX that seem to revolve around the character of Spritle, as if these scenes were cobbled together at the last minute by film crews borrowed from the set of the soap opera next door.
Content (Pass/Fail) – Pass
This is no darkly nihilistic cyberpunk future, nor is it a dystopian society in dire need of rebellion. In Speed Racer, one man can make a difference by virtue of his own integrity. Themes of integrity are at the forefront, delivered by Pops Racer, Rex Racer, and Racer X as they assure us that the truth can’t be suppressed, and that a man is defined by his struggle with corruption. Speed’s struggle to come to terms with what it means to be an adult is the compelling and thought provoking heart of the film. Personal violence is largely played for comedic value, but the danger that comes from the race track is never downplayed. Language is uniformly clean, with a few exceptions; authority figures are respected, if not always obeyed. In the end, it is not Might that makes Right, but rather Right that empowers Might.
Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Action junkies of all ages will want to see this movie again and again, roaring the fusion pumps of the T-180s through subwoofers cranked to the max. One viewing simply will not suffice to appreciate the depth of story, breadth of action, and dynamic relationships that raise this movie to greatness. Speed Racer really is a film that rewards multiple viewings, allowing the audience to appreciate the subltety of the Wachowskis’ manipulation of theme through cinematic device, admire the character of the Racer family, and thrill to the unmatched momentum inadequately reffered to as “racing”.