When I started elementary school in the mid-1970s, my TV diet consisted of PBS standards like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
It didn’t take long for my classmates to suggest alternatives. One of those was Speed Racer, the American dub of the Japanese series Mahha GoGoGo.
My mom objected to shows like this and the old Spider-Man cartoon most vocally on the grounds of the excessive violence, which served only to increase my desire to see them. Forbidden fruit and all that.
Speed Racer, to my young eyes, was all about the car – the Mach 5.
Speed Racer and the Mach 5 might be claimed as a source of inspiration for many vehicle-themed shows that later followed – Knight Rider, for example.
The film tanked at the box office when it was released in 2008, and drew generally negative reviews. I picked up the DVD about a year ago at Target for the princely sum of $5, but it gathered dust on the shelf until last night, when a combination of insomnia and lack of anything better to do led me to pop open a beer and throw Speed Racer into the player.
I’ll say up front that not even reviewing films like Mega Shark Vs. Crocosaurus could have prepared me for the Wachowski Brothers’ take on Speed Racer.
We meet a young Speed Racer in school, unable to concentrate on his work. Constantly caught up in daydreams about racing, he’s considered an outsider by his classmates and a poor student by his teacher. We come to learn that his father builds race cars, and his brother Rex drives them. These aren’t just any race cars, either. They’re impossibly high-performance machines that race on tracks that look more like fancy Hot-Wheels setups:
In Speed Racer’s world, physics doesn’t seem to have much use. Cars spin, flip, drift around turns, spring over other cars, and travel at speeds approaching 500 MPH.
Speed’s brother, Rex, is a very talented racer, but has a fallout with their father, Pops (a horribly under-utilized John Goodman), and leaves home on a dark and stormy night.
Shortly after, a racing accident kills Rex, who was living under accusations of cheating. The Racer family is crushed. Mom (played by Susan Sarandon, who spends most of her scenes looking like she’s trying to find an escape from the set) takes Rex’s death particularly hard, but provides the emotional glue that holds the family together. (Ms. Sarandon was given possibly the most well-written dialog in the entire film. Nevertheless, one must wonder just what sort of leverage the Wachowski’s had on her to get her into this thing.)
Speed grows up (portrayed by Emile Hirsch) to become a fine racer in his own right, and after dramatically winning a local race, is approached by Royalton (Roger Allam) to join his stable of racers. The Racer family, long an independent racing team, is suspicious of Royalton’s offer, but goes with him to visit his headquarters, accompanied by Speed’s long-time girlfriend, Trixie2 (Christina Ricci).
After the initial visit, Speed and Trixie discuss Royalton’s offer and Speed’s future.
The Wachowski’s aren’t subtle. Anyone who can’t figure out that Royalton isn’t one of the good guys is either dead or asleep (which, by this point in the film wouldn’t be out of the question.) We can tell because his eyebrows have a sort of villainous arch to them.
Really, they could have made it a little less obvious. Anyhow, when Speed declines Royalton’s offer of
indentured servitude employment, Royalton tells Speed that the Racer family name won’t even have any cache on a late night infomercial, let alone in the racing world. (Apparently the sport of auto racing in the reality of Speed Racer is little more than a front for corporate manipulation of stock prices, and the winners of every major race are negotiated beforehand.)
Sure enough, before you know it, things have gone bad for the family.
Enter the mysterious RacEr X and (in what has to be one of the most ridiculous names ever) Inspector Detector of the CIB (or something – it’s a group that investigates corruption in the racing business).
They have a proposal for Speed – team up with RacEr X and some other driver who we were introduced to a few minutes ago that I didn’t bother to mention to win a big road race that will lead the third driver to give up a file he has on corrupt drivers and team owners and put people like Royalton with funky eyebrows out of business. (You’ll note that Inspector Detector is clearly a good guy – nary an arched eyebrow in sight.)
Speed and Trixie decide to accept the offer against the wishes of Speed’s parents, and head to the race under cover of a skiing trip.
The bad guys put a bounty on Speed’s team, and automotive hijinks ensue as the various drivers deploy whatever dirty tricks they have at their disposal to win.
Some dramatic tension unfolds as the race goes through the same cave that Speed’s brother, Rex was killed in – a stretch of road that RacEr X seems unusually familiar with.
Speed and company ultimately prevail and win the race, only to discover that the third driver really didn’t have a file on all the corrupt players, and was simply using Speed and RacEr X to win the race and boost his father’s stock price.
Disillusioned, Speed heads home, but has finally used his keen senses of observation and logic to almost figure out that RacEr X showed up shortly after Rex’s death, and that Rex’s body was unrecognizably burned, and that RacEr X drives like Rex and knows Speed’s moves! OMG! RacEr X must BE Rex!
Speed soon confronts the mysterious masked man about it, who removes his hood to prove to Speed that he isn’t his brother, but knows that his brother would be proud of the man Speed has become. (Speed, demonstrating that he’s not the sharpest tool in the garage, appears never to have heard of plastic surgery…)
The third driver’s sister shows up with an invitation for Speed to participate in the Grand Prix, which is his life’s dream. The family has less than two days to rebuild Speed’s car and get to the race, which we know they’ll do for no other reason than that this would be a very bizarre way to end the movie.
The Grand Prix race, as presented by the Wachowski’s is an eye-scorching, ear-splitting eruption of garish color and noise:
Basically, if you’ve ever played a Mario Kart game, the Grand Prix is Rainbow Road with the volume turned full-up on the TV. The long and the short of it is that Speed wins, the Racer family regains its lost honor, and the corrupt businessmen like Royalton are exposed for the wretched villainous scum they truly are.
This was a very difficult movie to watch for a number of reasons.
First off, the characters were uniformly uninteresting – even the leads. John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Christina Ricci are all talented, but they aren’t really given anything to work with here. Emile Hirsch seemed to be asleep most of the time, even in the “intense” racing scenes, and it went downhill from there. Even the Mega Shark films have something to their characters that makes them less of a chore to watch.
Second, as the screenshot of the Grand Prix should illustrate, the visual style of the film seemed designed mainly to make the viewer’s eyes bleed. I understand the challenges in making a live-action film from a cartoon. Trying to keep the original visual style probably won’t work, but neither will going with a fully real-world approach. Nevertheless, the source material for Speed Racer would have allowed a much more realistic approach that might have made the film less exhausting to endure.
Third, the characters were all different from how they “should” have been. In the cartoon, Speed was more confident, Trixie was less aggressive, Racer X more edgy. Here, we have a Speed who can’t seem to look anyone in the eye, Trixie exuding a smoldering sexuality that seems out-of-place (I think that’s really more just Ricci…), and Racer X who never lives up to his potential. This wasn’t Speed Racer so much as something that superficially resembled Speed Racer.
Fourth, and finally, by the end of the film, nothing had really changed. The family still thinks Rex is dead. Pops still builds his own cars without any sponsorship. Speed is still racing, and the racing world, now that its most corrupt players have been rooted out, is the honorable world that Speed and his family believed it to be at the start of the film.
They’re all right back where they started, and I’m out five bucks.
2In the original cartoon, it was easy to come to the conclusion that Trixie was Speed’s sister, especially if you were watching the show at six or seven years old. Even when I watched most of the series a few years back, their relationship still seemed fairly low-key. Christina Ricci, however, brings a more aggressive Trixie to the screen. It’s a PG-rated movie, so she doesn’t go overboard with it, but still…