I will preface this review by noting that I once dressed as Speed Racer for a costume during career day in high school. This will assuredly make my reactions to all things relating to the franchise particularly notable, especially something like a live action remake of the film. I will admit that I was wholly aware of this film when it came out in 2008, but purposefully avoided seeing it because at the time I did not want my nostalgia, and frankly, still rooted adoration for the film negated in any serious way. I had been told, prior to getting into the film that this was not good by the general film going public who were assumedly expecting something in line with The Wachowski's other works prior, such as The Matrix and V for Vendetta. I admit that Speed Racer, in its seizure-inducing visual styles and seismic like pacing, is a far cry from the previously mentioned films, but when it comes to a directing duo such as Andy and Lana Wachowski repetition is simply not a thing of interest. Speed Racer was critiqued for not appropriating the franchise and was dismissed as being all thriller with absolutely no filler. I find both of these accusations to be indicative on individual critical lenses that cannot accept that the film is managing to do both of these things in such a synchronized way as to completely move beyond a space of live action remake to a complete revisioning of the world of Speed Racer. Between a noted choice to create a cyberspace for the world, one that incorporates CGI graphics with a very early pixelated look and the after effects added to many of the motions undertaken by the character it is a noted shame that Speed Racer did not receive a greater degree of praise for its absolutely thrilling use of special effects. The Wachoswki's clearly took their source material to heart and managed to create something that was both true to the material as well as infused with their own cinematic points of interest, the delightful uses of kung fu in the film being a great example of just this occurrence. Indeed, Speed Racer the film is not the cartoon, because as a live action film it cannot perfectly recreate that which does not exist in the real. Between the vibrant colors, purposefully measured acting of the performers and a keen eye for narrative scope, Speed Racer gets as close to the cartoon as possible without relying on cel animation to exist.
Speed Racer focuses on the title character of Speed (Emile Hirsch) who is a member of the independent racing family The Racer's. While Speed has become the new hope for racing in the family he is living under the shadow of his late older brother Rex (Scott Porter) who died in a car crash much to the sadness of his father Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon). Nonetheless, Speed proves from a young age that he is simply tied to racing, therefore, spending his days becoming better at the sport, letting it even invade his dreams. Supporting Speed are the other members of his family Sprite (Paulie Litt) and a pet monkey Chim Chim (Willy and Kenzie), alongside Sparky (Kick Curry) the Racer's mechanic and Speed's girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci). When Speed makes a name for himself during a big race, he becomes the object of affection for various racing companies, including the corporate power figure Royalton (Roger Allam). Despite being offered lavish goods and the highest training, Speed refuses to join the Royalton racing team, thus leading to him becoming a target of the other drivers who are part of a fixing scheme that is affecting the professional racing circuit. Approached by the enigmatic and stoic Racer X (Matthew Fox) in unison with Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) Speed is asked to help create a team that will directly counter the corruption in the sport. Although initially hesitant, Speed agrees to join when another racer Taejo Togokahn (Rain) also joins forces with him and X. Unfortunatley, during the race it is revealed that Taejo is under the strings of a larger corporate scam, leaving Speed no choice but to enter into a highly contestable race and prove that he is not only the best racer in the circuit, but that he can achieve victory without playing into the scheme of fixed matches. After the affirmation of Racer X, who Speed believes to be his deceased brother, Speed takes on the greatest racers in the industry and even manages to catch one of them in the process of cheating. In victory, Speed ushers in a new era of racing where skill and compassion trump deception and wealth.
If this were any other filmmakers work, I would be inclined to read the narrative on a very cursory level, completely overlooking the possibility of gender politics, ethics and even religion at play in the film. The Wachowski's however, are not any other filmmakers, and whether it be their masterpiece The Matrix, or their more contentious recent film with Tom Twyker Cloud Atlas it is certain that they take narrative to be something that works on layers and pulls from various sources to create its details. Speed Racer is a lengthy movie considering its subject matter and potential intended audience, but it is very much in this length that the film can be discussed for its use, or lack thereof, of linear narrative to create identity and empathy in a film. It would be simple to read this as a film about Speed Racer coming into his place as the future of a name in racing and it is very much that, however, the layers of performing the part of prodigal son, unwilling patriarch and thing of spectacle all emerge within the fantastical frenzy of the film. The way figures move throughout the film in a layered, free floating manner suggests that as much as the narrative is decidedly predicated upon the decisions and actions of Speed, it is also in unison and constant engagement with the other figures in his life, both those incredibly close to him like Trixie and those almost wholly detached, such as the announcers whose voices and visages emerge in as almost a high a frequency as the main characters. This all coalesces to suggest that every motion or action is in regards to a layer of contingent events that if altered even in the slightest could change the entirety of the narrative. For example, Racer X knows that by revealing his identity to Speed in a very real sense could prove the very change that would minimally alter his ability to win the Grand Prix. In a more cinematic and metaphorical level, Speed while still a good sport, nonetheless, has to learn that the best way to win a raise is not to be straightforward from beginning to end, but does require navigating outside the boundaries of the track, because these spaces are of equal importance to his advancement. It is when he must use the Mach 5 to climb the side of the mountain, in the process skipping a section of the track, that he moves into a new space. The Speed that is capable of unquestioned victory learns that linearity is futile, when those around are willing to help and hinder such progression, even if in an accidental manner.
Key Scene: The outdoor kung fu fight is an excellent aside, in a film that is for all intents and purposes about race car driving.
This film is without a doubt one of the most underrated films of the past decade, alongside the other Wachowski work Cloud Atlas. It pops of the screen and demands a bluray purchase unlike any other film.