Few properties are as aggressively single-minded as Speed Racer. The title alone tells us the main character’s name, occupation, and his particular focus when it comes to racing (not to mention his theoretical drug of choice). For whatever reason, the high-minded Wachowskis were hired to adapt this simple franchise into a summer blockbuster. The Matrix trilogy might have proven their box-office credentials, but those films are far from simple.
Even by their elaborate standards, the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer is shockingly hard to follow. Although story itself remains fairly simple – Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) must win races to defeat an evil corporation and save his family’s business – the Wachowskis toss it into a blender, filling the film with flashbacks, flashforwards, and all sorts of structural trickery. It’s like they were bored by their own movie. Unsurprisingly, Speed Racer had trouble finding an audience and flopped upon release in May 2008. Narrative complexity in a Speed Racer movie is as appealing as historical veracity in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That is, not very.
Thanks to its core simplicity, however, the intricacies of Speed Racer and its meticulously crafted world can be easily ignored (or at least saved for a repeat viewing). Underneath the beautiful, retina-searing CGI lies a big-hearted movie with a goofy sense of humor.
For such a commercial endeavor, the film displays a surprising amount sincerity. Though it takes place a futuristic wonderland, the values of Speed Racer have a squeaky clean, 1950s Cleaver family vibe, making for an amusing and endearing juxtaposition. Consider Racer X’s pep talk to a distraught Speed during the film’s final stretch. This extremely hokey speech is delivered with the straightest of faces – Matthew Fox’s.
“It doesn't matter if racing never changes. What matters is if we let racing change us. Every one of us has to find a reason to do this. You don't climb into a T-180 to be a driver. You do it because you're driven.”
These hoary clichés are treated with the utmost respect. In this film, even the groan-inducing pun (“You do it because you’re driven.” Thanks, Bruce Vilanch.) becomes profound wisdom. Speed Racer might be outrageously silly, but its characters treat their zany world completely seriously Everything gets this matter of fact treatment, from the comically dangerous racetracks to the misadventures of Speed’s kid brother and his monkey sidekick, Chim Chim.
This hilarious straightforwardness even applies to the characters’ names besides Speed Racer’s. The ludicrously wealthy villain played with a Christopher Hitchens smarm by Roger Allam? He’s E.P. Arnold Royalton. The head detective from the Central Intelligence Bureau? Inspector Detector, naturally. Speed Racer’s mom and dad (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, respectively) are literally named Mom Racer and Pops Racer. While these roles could have been poorly conceived archetypes, the actors keep the characters grounded with their largely understated performances, taking their dated cues from big-hearted sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver, without any Eddie Haskells to laugh at the schmaltz.
The cast knows its place, allowing the ridiculous spectacle take center stage. As to be expected, Speed Racer features many great races, the highlight being the Casa Cristo 5000, a two-day trek across a variety of trecherous terrain. Thankfully, Speed’s nefarious competitors are nowhere near as grounded as the other characters. Our hero races against cartoonish caricatures of army men, girly girls, and Vikings, among others. It’s as though the Wachowskis used Speed Racer as an opportunity to make a magnificently gorgeous, action-packed version of Wacky Racers. How else to explain drivers like Snake Oiler, who dumps actual snakes onto the track a diversion.
(Alas, the best video I could find of this awesome race has had its entire soundtrack redubbed. Please watch it muted.)
The brawls aren’t limited to the speedways. From gunplay against 1930s styled gangsters to prolonged fisticuffs, Speed Racer manages several unique set pieces without losing its goofy charm. Even John Goodman gets in on the action, taking down a ninja assassin. One suspects that Mr. Goodman signed on only because no other film would ever give him the chance to fight a ninja. He even gets a dopey one liner:
“More like a non-ja” might not be the cleverest retort, but it embodies Speed Racer's cornball modus operandi. The film throws out every sort of goofy fun imaginable, dashing onto the next hyperactive set piece before anything can linger (or open itself up to scrutiny). This largely works to the film’s success, as the 135-minute running time flies by like Speed himself. Speed Racer might have a simple message about staying true to yourself, but at least it has an awesomely silly time saying it. Most automobile-focused movies would benefit from the addition Speed Racer's random sense of fun. Think how much better Cars would have been if Lightning McQueen had a monkey sidekick. You know, besides Larry the Cable Guy.
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