Speed Racer (2008)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 5/9/08
Producer: Joel Silver
Directors: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Paulie Litt, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Roger Allam, Rain (Jung Ji Hoon), cameos by Hiroyuki Sanada, Richard Roundtree

Wow. I haven't seen this much color since "Dick Tracy" (1990). The Wachowski brothers deliver once again with this brilliant confection of color and movement. Having had no prior exposure to the original "Speed Racer" series, I have no idea how this adaptation compares. However, it certainly feels genuine and creates an amazing aesthetic that can only be described as a juxtaposition of anime and live action. The only reasons I couldn't give it a 4-star rating were that it spent a little too much time on uninteresting flashbacks, and the unfortunate antics of the younger brother do nothing but break the narrative and annoy the viewer. Otherwise, it's a non-stop barrage of outlandish visual splendor and hyper-kinetic frenzied action.

The story centers around a teenager named Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) who is obsessed with racing and possesses an unnatural talent for it. His older brother Rex was also a race car driver who died several years before in a tragic accident while trying to combat corruption in the world of racing and corporate sponsorship. Now Speed is following in his footsteps and chasing his ghost. When he is offered a grand sponsorship deal by the wicked leader of Royalton Industries (excellent Roger Allam), he turns it down and is blacklisted by the racing world. His family also suffers from the mud slinging campaign that Royalton wages against them. When the not-so-mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) shows up, Speed has a chance to strike back at the system and participates in the extremely dangerous Casa Christo rally race. While he manages to win, the victory turns out to be hollow and meaningless. However, a curious turn of events allows him to race in the prestigious Gran Prix, which causes the racing world to cry foul and they do everything they can to stop him. Naturally, Speed comes out on top, and manages to expose the crimes of Royalton at the same time. A great feel-good ending of good triumphing over evil.

Obviously great care was taken to recreate the look and feel of the series. The racing sequences are totally insane and difficult to process, but deliriously enjoyable to watch. As with a lot of CGI effects, the biggest problem is trying to convey a sense of weight and momentum, and the racing scenes feel as light and slippery as slot car racing. Additionally, some of the other visual effects don't work very well and numerous scenes look like cut-and-paste disasters with no sense of spatial continuity. The film also offers some nicely done martial arts sequences, and I applaud the Wachowski's for taking the time to do it seriously when they could have so easily opted not to. Additionally, the racing sequences focus on the racing and the emotions of the drivers, which is a delightful change from the norm. Most racing films tend to spend a ridiculous amount of time cutting to shots of the driver's feet, steering wheel, instrument panel, and gearshift, as if that's supposed to be interesting. All that does is spoil the rhythm of the race and break continuity.

With the exception of the annoying little brother (Paulie Litt) and his pet chimpanzee, the film takes itself very seriously and has a constant vein of tension, angst, and intensity running through it. However, given that it's supposedly a "family film," that seriousness needs to be broken up occasionally with inane juvenile humor. It's also extremely violent, but handled in a lighthearted cartoonish manner where no one ever gets seriously hurt and drivers always manage to safely escape from their violently demolished vehicles (except for poor Rex). The acting is quite good and Emile Hirsch does an excellent job as Speed. While he looks cute and innocent, there's a burning intensity in his eyes that lends him a nice sense of ruggedness and determination. Christina Ricci makes a cute Trixie, but doesn't seem to really fit the part. However, she's totally hot when she's driving - I just wish she got to do it more. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon make excellent parents and the depth of their emotions is genuine and palpable. Matthew Fox makes a superb Racer X. His intense voice and stoic persona perfectly compliment his imposing costume, and he commands respect. The supporting characters are also quite good and the entire film has great chemistry and a pleasant positive attitude.

At this point I feel compelled to bring up a comment that one of the more negative reviews of the movie mentioned. It disparagingly remarked that the film "only appeals to anime fans," which I find incredibly interesting. Well, duh. Isn't that the whole point? "Speed Racer" actually succeeds in delivering a live action adaptation of an anime show, which I find remarkable. How many times have we seen comic books, video games, and anime turned into live action films, only to have them disregard the material and completely alienate the fan base? Almost every time. And who benefits? Certainly not the fans, since the material has been desecrated. The casual viewers don't benefit either because they probably don't have any interest in the material in the first place, and if they did, they would be getting a misrepresentation of it which only hurts the existing franchise. In either case, the studios suffer because, surprise, surprise, their crap isn't selling tickets (and they always find increasingly creative and outlandish things to blame). If you don't make the fans happy, then how do you expect to gain NEW fans? Is that so hard to understand?