Revisiting the Reviled – ‘Speed Racer’ Moves Too Fast For Its Own Good

GameStop, Inc.

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For a series that had an initial run with a grand total of 52 episodes in the ‘60s, it’s quite remarkable the lasting power of Speed Racer. Though not everyone may be a fan of the show, everyone is quite familiar with the look of Speed and his Mach 5. The character has survived the decades through various incarnations – toys, comics, other animated series, and a Geico commercial. Though having nothing more than a recognizable character doesn’t always translate to box office success, that’s never stopped anyone in this the golden age of recycling the past. Written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, the minds behind The Matrix, 2008’s Speed Racer bombed, opening a week after Iron Man proved to be an unexpected smash. Though I won’t say the film is a masterpiece like its dedicated cult following would claim, it’s a unique, strange film that remains fascinating as a case of ambitious failure.

Upon its initial release in 2008, I actively avoided the film. Its highly stylized computer generated world didn’t appeal to me and I just passed. Finally taking the time to watch it, I was able to see what its defenders see within the film, even if I still don’t like it as a whole myself. I understand what it’s doing. I respect how they do it. It just doesn’t move me. If the film were just a 30 minutes shorter, I might’ve been able to hail it as an unheralded masterpiece. As it stands, there’s too much fat in the film.

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Speed Racer has one of the more fascinating openings of any blockbuster of recent memory. Starting out with Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) in the midst of a race, the film flashes between the backstories of every major character and the current race. We see Speed as a rambunctious youth, impatiently waiting to get out of school to race around with his older brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter). We see Trixie (Christina Ricci) and her first meeting with Speed all those years ago. We see the strained relationship between Pops (John Goodman) and Rex, which results in Rex leaving the family behind. We see Mom (Susan Sarandon) comfort Speed when Rex is killed during a dangerous race. The opening is ambitious and effective. Not only does it provide the audience an entry point into the hyper-stylized world of neon, but it also establishes each major character, their backstories, their triumphs and tragedies.

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As good as the opening is, the film really loses itself in an unnecessarily complex plot, which also gives the film its cynical edge, one that is at once the film’s greatest strength and weirdest juxtaposition. Speed Racer is a candy colored kid’s film with extreme tonal shifts. In one scene, Speed can be celebrating his greatest victory. In the next, he is being told that racing is a corrupt sport with fixed outcomes and is entirely funded by insider trading. It’s like a kid’s movie about wresting that’s all about how wrestling is fake. As much as I like the film’s cynicism juxtaposed against its crazed aesthetic, it’s too much of a clash to really work. But that doesn’t hurt the film as much as the clumsy and obvious reveal that Racer X (Matthew Fox) is really Rex Racer after faking his own death. That, combined with the length of the film and its lackluster final race, complete with flashbacks and a predictable ending, prevents Speed Racer from being more than a curiosity, another ambitious failure.

It certainly doesn’t hurt the film that, for the most part, it’s exceptionally well cast. As Pop, John Goodman delivers as usual, providing Pop with the heart and soul of the film’s emotional story. The casting of big-eyed actresses Susan Sarandon and Christina Ricci was obviously an attempt to capture the big-eyed look of the anime series. It’s really just a bummer that this is pretty much the last major movie with Christina Ricci. That’s a damn travesty. Emile Hirsch never stands out for better or worse, he’s like this blank slate amid this epileptic nightmare. Hands down the worst performance in the film is Matthew Fox, who plays like a low rent Aaron Eckhart, who himself has gotten pretty low rent lately.

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For better or worse, the Wachowskis seemingly know no limits to their ambition. With Speed Racer, the size of their ambition is greater than the audience’s tolerance of the film’s hyperactive world. It’s just too much sound and fury at untold speeds. Few concessions are made to any concept of realism and that benefits the film greatly. The Wachowskis also make the most use of the frame as possible. Every frame is overflowing with information – whether relevant to the plot or to amplify an action sequence. And when I say that there’s fat in the film, I say that knowing full well that this isn’t the kind of movie that you could just snip a scene here or there. The compositions are so dense that you can’t trim one scene without affecting everything else. Unlike Sin City, which used computers to give the film a look of digital grit, Speed Racer uses its CG world to craft a rambunctious pop art utopia.

Speed Racer isn’t an unheralded masterpiece, but it is a far more interesting film than typically given credit for. More than anything, it proves that an ambitious failure is always more intriguing than a success that plays it safe. This is film that has the pedal to the metal for 2 hours and 15 minutes straight. However, it runs on fumes for the last 30 minutes. It just can’t cross the finish line.

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