Movie Review: Speed Racer (2008)
“Speed has no limits.”
Speed Racer (2008)
Director: The Wachowskis
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox, Christina Ricci
Synopsis: A young driver, Speed Racer, aspires to be champion of the racing world with the help of his family and his high-tech Mach 5 automobile.
After four years toiling in the darkly subversive world of The Matrix, The Wachowski siblings couldn’t have opted for a more different subject for their next project than the live-action animation, Speed Racer, their giddy take on the short-lived 1967 Japanese kid’s TV cartoon Mahha GoGoGo, which enjoyed an equally fleeting revival in 1993. It almost feels like the film is a reaction to the Matrix movies, like gulping a lungful of air after holding your breathe for a couple of minutes.
Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch –Killer Joe, The Darkest Hour) hails from a family whose history is steeped in the world of racing. His older brother, Rex (Scott Porter – 10 Years), was a big star on the circuit, but his career and life were cut short by a fatal accident during a cross-country rally, which explains why Speed’s dad, Pops (John Goodman – ParaNorman, 10 Cloverfield Lane) refuses to entertain the notion of Speed straying from the track racing at which he excels. That’s not a problem until Speed rejects the overtures of Royalton (Roger Allam – The Iron Lady, Mr. Holmes), a racing magnate who wants the sport’s latest sensation to race for him, and whose angry reaction to Speed’s polite rejection is to reveal that every Grand Prix race in history has been fixed by the bureaucrats who control the sport. Shortly after receiving this devastating news, the family receives a visit from Inspector Detector (Benno Furmann) and the mysterious, masked Racer X (Matthew Fox – World War Z, Extinction), who explain that fellow racer Taejo Togokahn (Rain) is in possession of incriminating files on Royalton which he will only give to the police if he wins the very same rally race in which the Racers’ eldest son lost his life. Naturally, Pops is dead against it, but Speed is determined to expose Royalton for the fraud that he is, and restore the honour of the sport he loves.
Watching Speed Racer, it’s impossible to believe that the Wachowskis were too bothered about the movie’s plot, for which even the word threadbare is too complimentary. This could be because their primary concern was for the look of the picture, but it could also be that they wanted to recapture the purely functional role of the plot in a 1960s kids TV cartoon. As with the cartoons, the visuals are highly stylised, but the plot is generic. But what would normally be a fatal drawback for most movies is countered here by the Wachowskis’ endlessly inventive use of the screen. Every frame of Speed Racer vibrates with energy and colour, and represents an opportunity for the siblings to mine their imaginations in order to conjure up yet another bold and striking image. The way brief flashbacks glide across the scene from which they are recalled while simultaneously ushering in the following scene illustrate the kind of commitment to keep the screen alive from opening to final credits. It’s innovative, dizzying stuff at times – and it’s also fun.
Is Emile Hirsch bland, or is he a living cartoon, a necessary, but not particularly vital component? His hair looks good, he’s clean cut; he’s the archetypal kids’ cartoon hero with bland features and a non-intrusive determination to do what’s right. John Goodman as Pops also resembles his cartoon counterpart but keeps both eyes open as he talks, and carries a little more weight. The women are mere decorative baubles, apparently instructed to do nothing more than look sexy (Susan Sarandon – The Calling, Zoolander 2 – as Speed’s unquestioningly supportive mum), or look sexy and perky (Christina Ricci – The Addams Family, Addams Family Values – as Speed’s unquestioningly supportive girlfriend). Paulie Litt as Spritle irritates as only little brothers can, and Roger Allam’s villainous Royalton – a character not found in the TV series – proves to be an enjoyably hissable villain. Together, they tread the line between believable performance and the enthusiastic energy peculiar to cartoon characters.
Stylised movies often come across as a flamboyant self-indulgence on the part of the director responsible, so it’s refreshing to find a visually striking movie that gets the balance right, and refrains from distractingly overt self-references. The negative reaction that greeted Speed Racer upon its release is both mysterious and unjust, and prompted more perhaps by people’s pre-conceived expectations of the Wachowskis than by any genuine shortcomings in the movie itself – and evidence, perhaps, of a movie ahead of its time. Approach Speed Racer with your mind free of thoughts of Neo and his mates, but filled instead with memories of those cheap imported cartoons that filled your childhood days. You’ll have a blast, believe me.
(Reviewed 28th April 2016)
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