Speed Racer – DVD Review

Available at Amazon.com

Insane tracks, outrageous gadgets, and kung fu performed with cars—if Nascar was like this I’d be its biggest fan.

Actually, Speed Racer was one of those movies that I never expected to like. When I first saw the previews I didn’t like the obviously CGI backgrounds, the hyperkinetic, almost ADHD style it seemed to be filmed in, and over-the-top cartoon style that permeated every scene. So I was surprised when some friends of mine recommended it to me, and even more surprised at how much I ended up enjoying the movie.

And it wasn’t that I liked it in spite of those issues—I liked it because of them. The Wachowski Brothers understood that the only way to make this movie was to go in with guns blazing, to take it as far as they could and treat the story as seriously as possible without falling into the trap of self-referential satire, and they pulled it off. There are no winks to the camera, no Leslie Neilsen moments where the filmmakers acknowledge the inherent silliness of the concept. Instead we have pure, adrenaline filled action with a lot of humor and a lot of heart.

The key to Speed Racer (and I’m not trying to be funny here) is speed. The movie moves so quickly that you get swept along into the action like the jet of wind after a car passes by. There’s no time to think about the plot, or dissect the acting because you’re so bombarded by the breakneck pace of the plotting and the constant stream of color and special effects. In some ways it’s like a two hour rollercoaster where all you can do is just hold on.

The Wachowskis manage to keep this pace through the liberal use of flashbacks and flashforwards. The brothers practically bend time into a Gordian knot, giving us vital background information during exhilarating action scenes and somehow always managing to keep the plot from becoming a jumbled mess. This is impressive directing that I would almost put on the same level as the works of Christopher Nolan. Even though they have wildly different directing styles, they both have shown a masterful grasp of handling time.

Not only is the plotting impressive, but the visuals are absolutely stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a vibrant use of color outside of an Asian film, and it really adds a sense of life to the movie. Sure, it’s very cartoony, but it’s so rich and lush that it adds volumes to the movie. Simply put, this is a fun movie just to look at. I hate to use the phrase “visual feast” but I can’t think of a better way to put it. The best part about the color, though, is that it doesn’t distract from the movie, but enhances it as a tool used to highlight the emotion of the scene.

In a sense, Speed Racer is better than the sum of its parts, and that’s because when the movie’s over and the ride pulls in to a stop, the audience gets the chance to breath and reflect, and unfortunately, the movie falls apart under close analysis.

Take the overall story, for example. The basic idea is that corporations have been using this huge race as a way to drive up or down their stocks. Companies are made and broken depending on the deals made before and during the race and who actually wins and loses is decided long before the race actually begins. The Racer family, of course, wants nothing to do with these corporate shenanigans and thus represent a threat to the status quo. Yet how the companies actually use the race and how Speed threatens the setup is rather vague, but it’s not until the movie finishes that you begin to think about that. The movie simply doesn’t leave you time to ponder.

The Wachowskis compound this with their almost pathological need to insert some kind of philosophical subtext—in this case the insidious influence of capitalism on art and artists. They represent Speed as the “pure” form of racing battling against the bloated, corrupt racers who only care about money and the interests of their corporate masters. While this is a perfectly legitimate complaint about corporatization and the arts, I have a hard time seeing racing as the right metaphor to make this point. That Speed is an artist when it comes to driving seems a little ridiculous to me, but it could be that I just don’t know enough about car racing (maybe even sports in general) to understand how that works.

But undoubtedly the weakest part of the movie is Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer. Hirsch apparently graduated from the Hayden Christensen school of acting and only has two stock expressions for any situation: mild petulance or stupid bewilderment. Thankfully, Hirsch is surrounded by so many good actors, such as John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Mathew Fox, and Christina Ricci, that he doesn’t bring down the movie. Even the Korean pop star, Rain, is a better actor than Hirsch.

It’s odd, but looking at the actors, there seems to be a definite—hopefully unconscious—bias toward Americans in this movie. With the exception of Sparky and Horuko Togokahn, the heroes are all either American, or they at least sound American. Every villain in the movie speaks with some kind of accent, ranging from the cultured voice of Roger Allam as Royalton to the cockney growl of the mafia thugs, while Speed and his family talk in the flat, accentless American tones. I’m not sure why this is, but it was prevalent enough to notice, and if I didn’t think this was beneath the Wachowskis, I would say that there is a hidden xenophobia at work here. I hope that I’m wrong and that this is just coincidence, but it does make one think.

Really, though, these points are just basic nitpicking and none of them take away from the sheer fun of the movie. Speed Racer is what it set out to be—a fast, fun, rollercoaster of a movie—and it does that very well. Watching the cars rocket across the screen and seeing the drivers engage in what can only be called “Car Fu” is a pretty good way to spend a couple of hours. I’ve heard that fans of the Speed Racer anime were disappointed with the movie, but that tends to happen when something with a huge, loyal fanbase gets translated to the screen. Honestly, there’s just too much to enjoy here not to give it a try.

The video was presented in widescreen (no aspect ratio was listed) and the audio in Dolby Digital Surround 5.1, and the transfer for both was excellent. This movie looks and sounds as you would expect a summer blockbuster movie should.

Spritle in the Big Leagues (running time: 14:33)
This is a fanciful behind-the-scenes tour that follows the actor who played Spritle as he sneaks out of his trailer onto the lot. There are lots of Pop Up Video type information bubbles throughout the featurette giving tidbits about the movie.

Speed Racer: Supercharged! (running time: 15:41)
This is a fake documentary about the various cars in the movie, playing like an ESPN special.

As filmmakers, the Wachowskis seem to be hit or miss. They always have interesting ideas, but sometimes those ideas seem to get the better of them. Thankfully, that’s not the case with Speed Racer. Although I found it odd that such a large summer movie has so little extra features, that doesn’t take away enjoying the DVD. Recommended.


Warner Bros. Pictures presents Speed Racer. Directed by The Wachowski Brothers. Starring Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, Mathew Fox, Richard Roudtree, and Rain. Written by The Wachowski Brothers. Running time: 135 minutes. Rated PG. Released on DVD: September 16, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.

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