In 1999, when writer-director siblings Lana and Lilly Wachowski released their sophomore feature, The Matrix, it was more than a mere movie. The film was a pop culture phenomenon, with groundbreaking special effects, an influential stylistic swagger, and a profound philosophical core housed within a mind-bending narrative frame. Two sequels followed, both released in 2003 and both inferior in most every way. For the Wachowskis, their first non-Matrix film in nearly ten years was bound to have high expectations, and for better or worse, in 2008, those expectations were applied to their wildly extravagant live-action rendering of Tatsuo Yoshida’s 1960s manga series, Speed Racer.
The film centers, of course, on eponymous hero Speed Racer, played by Emile Hirsch. His parents are Pops and Mom (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon), and Speed drives for the household racing company, named, appropriately enough, Racer Motors. They are joined by a younger brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), typically seen with his companion pet monkey, and there is Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), and the resident mechanic, Sparky (Kick Gurry). All live in the shadow of Speed’s older brother, the famous—or infamous, depending who tells the story—Rex Racer (Scott Porter). Rex died during a punishing rally race, under mysterious, suspect circumstances, so now Speed has stepped behind the family wheel of his own Mach 5. Speed catches the eye of E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), CEO and owner of Royalton Industries, who tries to recruit the young contender and who embodies the racing world’s concentration on corporate greed, which steers against the path of pure sporting passion. Other dastardly figures emerge in what becomes a somewhat convoluted conspiracy of rampant, habitual criminality, a problem primarily investigated by Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) and the masked Racer X (Matthew Fox).
Most of this is covered in Speed Racer’s extended prologue, which sets the scene and, for lack of a better phrase, catches everyone up to speed. Aside from establishing the ins and outs of the film’s schematic racing enterprise, this high-octane preamble sets up the oppositional crux of the picture: The Racer family’s pride and their autonomous, honorable approach to racing versus that of Royalton and his gangster ilk, who emphasize wealth, glamour, and pretentious prestige. Sure, the prominent sponsorship is tempting, but racing is more than capital for Speed and his relations. While they suffer with the guilt and torment of Rex’s death (he and Pops had a falling out just before the apparently fatal accident), racing remains the tie that binds. It’s not just sport, it’s a religion, it’s their lifeblood. It is, since he was a small child worshiping at the altar of his brother, all Speed has ever thought about. If the outline of Speed Racer is relatively routine, this personal devotion is enough to continually motivate those involved and, like the effortless childhood fancy connecting Speed and Trixie or the positive, supportive family portrait, it gives Speed Racer a durable heart.
A film version of Speed Racer (also known in Japan as Mach GoGoGo) had been in the works since the early 1990s, passing through the hands of multiple parties before finally landing with producer Joel Silver and the Wachowskis, where it took the guise of a family-friendly, candy-colored, effects-driven adventure. As with the Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez Sin City (2005), the resulting adaptation is rigorously detailed, a dazzling cinematic realization of its essential animated source. The Wachowski film incorporates not just the Speed Racer cartoon’s “Go, Speed Racer, Go” theme song, its sound effects, and Speed’s iconic leap from his skidding-to-a-stop car, but it also mimics the affected dubbed dialogue, as when Trixie cautions Speed with sincere, spirited alarm, “Move it, Speed, it’s getting ugly out there.”
Speed Racer isn’t perfect, nor did it set the world on fire like The Matrix. Spritle is an obnoxious character played obnoxiously, and the other performances are serviceable at best. However, these shallow personalities are like the film’s flimsy plot, adhering to Speed Racer’s cartoon origin, its comparable lack of development and its broad constitution, with characters named for what they do and caricatured baddies who are more unequivocal evildoers than they are likeminded competitors (a poster of Edward G. Robinson testifies to the generic mobster bearing of the cartel fixers). The storyline is as winding as a racetrack, and at 135 minutes, there are more than a few detours. But Speed Racer reaches its finish in playful, charming fashion, with warmth and a genuine lack of affectation or cynicism.
When Speed’s revamped ride is fitted with a half-dozen alphabetical buttons, arming it with assorted weapons and triggering defensive capabilities, the car becomes a veritable video game on wheels, which is fitting for a film that itself resembles something akin to a Mario Kart acid trip. The vibrant neon hues are stunning, the pace is kinetic, and the film has a prodigious bounty of digital wipes, layers of CGI madness, and cascading streams of color. But the Wachowskis, cinematographer David Tattersall, and editors Zach Staenberg and Roger Barton make no attempt to ground the film in any semblance of veracity, which is why Speed Racer works so well. The production design, led by Owen Paterson, is like a kaleidoscopic jukebox pinball machine. It assimilates anime-style precision, integrating that form’s distinct graphic inventiveness and giving the film’s hyper-reality a parallel sense of infinite, energetic fantasy. Points of view defy the limits of screen direction, movements literally fly in the face of conventional space and time, and the embellished gearhead vision is built on the depiction of accelerated motion and automobile acrobatics. Unbound by any formal constraints, Speed Racer can be a little overwhelming, but there is something to be said for the spectacle of simply seeing something astounding, no matter its context or the consequence of its quality in other areas. Basically, as Trixie so succinctly puts it (the film can also be a little cornball), “Cool beans.”