Speed Racer – Review

“Go, Speed Racer, Go!!!”.

Speed Racer poster
Image courtesy of IMPawards.com

Writer/Director: The Wachowski Brothers
Notable Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Roger Allam

“Go, Speed Racer, Go!!!”

Cotton candy for the eyes. That’s Speed Racer. It’s sugary confection and palatable but not quite a three-course meal. Food metaphors aside, this movie was a gas.

Those unfamiliar with the original 1960s cartoon, the story boils down to this: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a phenomenal driver who can do amazing things in his Mach 5 racing machine. His father, Pops (John Goodman), has spent most of his life designing racecars; this is a man who has racing in his blood. Speed has a loving Mom (Susan Sarandon), a kid brother who is inseparable from his pet chimp, and a gal pal named Trixie (Christina Ricci).

Now Speed idolized his older brother Rex (Scott Porter). When Rex dies in a car accident, Speed takes up the Racer mantle and becomes one of the greatest racers in his part of the world. He is so good that sponsors try to lure him away from his father’s independently owned racing enterprise. One of the offers is from the head of Royalton Industries (played by the deviously delightful Roger Allam). He wants Speed to join his World Racing League (WRL) team, a team that is head and shoulders above the competition. Weighing his options, Speed ultimately declines the offer and decides to stay loyal to his father. Royalton is insulted and rather irritated. First he knocks Speed down a peg, explaining how all the WRL Grand Prix races have been fixed. Then he sets out to ruin Pops’ company and to make sure Speed never finishes, let alone win, another race. Discouraged and with no clear hope, the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Inspector Detector arrive to the Racer household with a two-fold proposition: A chance to race again and bring down Royalton and the rest of the fixers.

Speed Racer is definitely something different, the way Sin City and 300 were different. But the dark and gritty surrealism that is synonymous with Frank Miller’s graphic novels is replaced with a Technicolor rainbow of colors. Pinks and blues, yellows and reds, the whole spectrum is on display. Just like they did with The Matrix, the Wachowskis adaptation of the ‘60s cartoon is a bold project. This is definitely a family film, but the audience will most likely not be familiar with the original series. No matter, as the brothers up the wow factor (eye candy) and give us a two-hour film that is pure popcorn. The racing sequences are unadulterated kinetic excitement, and the film’s main attraction of course, but there’s plenty of goofy fun involving Speed’s little brother Spritle and his chimp Chim Chim that kids are sure to enjoy.

My only gripe is the acting. It’s too wooden, mainly because of the use of green screens. The dynamic is changed. Without physical props the actors have to make something out of nothing; the directors praying that in post-production everything will work seamlessly. The dialogue is playful and childish, even Royalton’s decree about what the future holds in store for Speed and family comes off as hammy.

Speed Racer is not high art, and it’s not trying to be. Sitting in my chair, the first thirty minutes I was overloaded to the point of boredom. The racing and the colors, vibrant and loud respectfully, but the story couldn’t match the visual appeal. It wasn’t until a scene where Ninjas burst into a hotel suite that my eyes started to widen with pure delight – and I remembered to take off my Thinking Cap. Pops grabs one of the Ninjas, who tried to put Speed out action, spins him over his head airplane style and immobilizes him. The sequence was pitch-perfect, with the added benefit of Michael Giacchino’s (The Incredibles) score. Giacchino and his music matches the Wachowskis visual style beat for beat.

Weighing the good and bad points, just know that the Wachowskis capture the tone and spirit of the original series. Speed Racer dazzles and entertains with unabashed flair.