“I’m Paul Barlow, and this is my daughter Jo.”

“Malone.”

“You got a first name?”

“Yeah.”

Summer Movie Flashback: Speed Racer

tn_speedracer

2008
2008

These days it’s pretty common for people to say that SPEED RACER is an overlooked gem – or even a masterpiece – that was misunderstood at the time. So give credit to your old Uncle Vern for praising it from day 1. I didn’t misunderstand that shit! I understood the hell out of it. I am a real good understander in my opinion. Not to brag.

But this is the second time I’ve watched it and actually I liked it alot more this time. I didn’t have as many reservations about the aggressively shiny and video gamey pixelscapes it takes place in. It’s still not my favorite look, but my brain has adjusted. I don’t know, maybe the rainbow colored kaleidoscope spinning around the studio logos at the beginning hypnotizes you when you see it on Blu-Ray. It starts to look amazing.

What really impressed me is the next level filmatism within that artifical world. The camera (or “camera”) soars through, over and around these space age racers as they zoom, drift, bounce and fly through loopty-loops, giant pinball machines and monster-faced ice caves, and despite all the speed and freneticism I think this mayhem is really easy to follow. (Judging from my original review maybe the smaller screen helps.) Characters’ heads constantly float away, wiping into the next scene, a more evolved version of Ang Lee’s best moves in HULK and, now that I think about it, one of a long list of ways that this movie must’ve influenced the shit out of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. There are fight scenes, Speed and Racer X vs. practicioners of nonjitsu, and you get a glimpse of the MATRIX era Wachowskis. Then it bounces into a more candy colored, silly-anime type of style with abstract backgrounds and even more exaggerated physics.

But even better is the complex construction of the story. It seemed convoluted the first time but ingenious now. Like you gotta take a few steps back from it to see the whole thing. In fact it’s like the engines of their cars, it’s complicated and crazy but somehow it works. The way I see it it’s kinda divided into 5 sections.

mp_speedracerONE:

The first 17 minutes of the movie is an incredible storytelling contraption that shows us Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, SAVAGES) competing in the big Thunderhead race, during which he flashes back to his childhood and obsession with racing, the influence of his older brother Rex (Scott Porter), also it goes into the stands where Mom (Susan Sarandon, SNITCH), Pops (John Goodman, DEATH SENTENCE) and Trixie (Christina Ricci, THE HARD WAY) are cheering him on, and each of them has a memory of Speed that explains more of the backstory including the death of Rex. Meanwhile Speed remembers the time Rex set the record on this track, and then a see-through memory of that race overlaps with the current one and Speed is literally racing against the memory of his dead brother, a tear streaming down his cheek. His family is elated that he comes close but doesn’t break the record.

The way Speed drives, spinning and flipping around and making it seem effortless and correct, that’s how the Wachowskis are filmatising here. Holy shit!

And the chapter ends on a dramatic eyeball closeup on the unmasked Racer X (Matthew Fox, ALEX CROSS) declaring that Speed will be the best… if they don’ t destroy him.

TWO:

How they try to destroy him is the topic of the next section, which is about 15 minutes. The corporate bigwig/Christopher Hitchens impersonator E.A. Royalton (Roger Allam, V FOR VENDETTA) comes to the house, sweet talks the Racer family and brings them on a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tour of his company to try to sign Speed to his team. He says all the right things: we want to make you your best, we’ll give you the best equipment in the world, the best trainers, you’ll have to work hard, but you’ll be heavily rewarded, here are some legendary champions for you to meet (and one of them’s Richard Roundtree), here are their trophies, I still see myself as an independent ever since I quit Globocon to start my own small company, I respect your decision, take your time, whatever you decide I’m your buddy, let’s be pals, I love your mom’s pancakes…

When Speed politely declines the offer we watch Royalton struggle awkwardly with his fake smile all through Speed’s passionate speech about his independent family business and what driving means to him.

And then the bastard shows his true face as an abusive asshole who not only threatens to destroy Speed’s career and bankrupt his family with bullshit lawsuits, but tries to crush his spirit by telling him that the world he loves and his childhood heroes are all a fraud, that it’s not about racing at all, it’s about selling engines, and fuck you you piece of garbage, do you know who I am? Christ, JC Penney is coming here because of ME. You ask anybody, they’ll tell ya.

THREE:

The next chapter is only about 5 minutes, but it’s about how this racer named Taejo Togokahn (Rain from NINJA ASSASSIN) has been kidnapped by thugs, but the mysterious masked driver Racer X rescues him. He says Royalton is trying to buy out his father’s company. Racer X is in cahoots with the G-Man Inspector Detector (Benno Fuhrmann) to try to clean up the corruption that Royaltan was bragging about, so they come up with a plan: if X, Taejo and Speed race as a team and win the race it’ll drive up the stock price so Royalton can’t buy them out.

[wait a minute, does Speed Racer ever think it’s weird that Racer X’s first name is the same as his own last name?]

FOUR:

is that trio race, the Casa Cristo, which turns out to be a trick. When Speed wins (spoiler) he jumps out and the camera rotates around him doinng what I think is the pose from the opening of the original cartoon, but then stock tickers float out over him, dirtying his victory. So really he loses.

FIVE:

is the Grand Prix, which is every racer’s dream, but it turns out it’s always been fixed, so if Speed can defy that by winning anyway then he can save everything he believes in. The Grand Prix is for all the chips.

Speed’s driving is explicitly described as art. His mom gives a stirring speech about it. He tells Trixie that it’s not about winning, but that winning is important because he needs to do it to keep on racing. (That’s why the Wachowskis’ next movie is a science-fictional piece with Channing Tatum and not CLOUD ATLAS 2: THE INACCESSIBILITATION.) I don’t know if there’s anything on record about the Wachowskis’ relationship with their parents, but either it was really good or this movie is what they dearly wish it was like. It’s charming to see such a sincere portrait of an unfailingly supportive family. Goodman does that funny-but-then-there-can-be-a-serious-emotional-part thing he did so well on Roseanne. They teach Speed good values, support him in his decisions, apologize when they’ve made mistakes, beat up ninjas who attack him. You’ll wish you were a Racer.

This is always a family operation, they gotta work harder. Over on the corporate side, the team that Speed turned down, a state-of-the-art machine manufactures the cars while everybody sips champagne. Pops and Sparky have to build Speed’s car by hand, and there’s no alcohol served. Mom does make everybody peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

I love SPEED RACER for its originality, its complete disinterest in hipness, its values, and especially its heart-on-its-sleeve sincerity. This time I particularly enjoyed the character of Racer X, who is kind of like Snake Eyes in the GI JOE movies in that he walks around in this costume and everybody is so okay with it that it’s contagious, he doesn’t even seem ridiculous anymore, he seems awesome.

I like it for its heart and soul, but there’s also plenty to enjoy on the plasticy, computery surface. There’s a ridiculous amount of detail in this world. Looking through the credits these are some of the many colorful characters you’ll get glimpses of: Prince Kabala, Blackjack Benelli, Minx, Cannonball Taylor, Grey Ghost, Dour Face, Flying Fox, Nitro, Gearbox. This is a world where some poor guy has to carefully handpaint the red and white checkers on the race track. That’s right, painter guy, I noticed you there. Thank you for your service.

There’s nothing else like SPEED RACER and probly never will be, even from the Wachowskis. I can admit it, even I was wrong about this movie. I liked it but I didn’t realize how truly brilliant it was. Hats off to SPEED RACER, clear winner in the whatever-the-hell-this-is category. Give it a drink of that cold milk.

* * *

original review

other movies that came out that summer: IRON MAN, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, THE HAPPENING, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, WANTED, HANCOCK, HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, THE DARK KNIGHT, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS, DEATH RACE, BABYLON A.D.

highest grossing movie that year: THE DARK KNIGHT (good choice, everybody)


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 at 1:23 am and is filed under Family, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “Summer Movie Flashback: Speed Racer”

  1. I really would have loved to see a review of HANCOCK, but SPEED RACER is so nice, I don’t mind you reviewing it twice.

    Being shot in Berlin, that movie has a surprising amount of German actors in supporting roles, like the already mentioned Benno Führmann (who is btw the German voice of Puss In Boots from the SHREK movies and, well…PUSS IN BOOTS and it’s the best performance he ever did!) or Moritz Bleibtreu (who you remember as the star of DAS EXPERIMENT) as one of the evil racers or Cosma Shiva Hagen as one of the stewardesses on the private jet.

    Yet, when Royalton quotes his mom about pancakes, it’s typical nonsensical Hollywood “German”. (“Pancooken sind Liebchen”? What the fuck? I guess he meant something like “Ich liebe Pfannkuchen” or “Pfannkuchen sind Liebe”, which doesn’t make that much sense either, but is at least grammatical correct! I forgot what he said in the German dubbing, though. I knew THAT was correct!)

  2. such an underrated fucking movie, I mean holy shit

    when I saw it in theaters (I’m proud to say) there was only me and two cousins I dragged along with me and this was on opening day! while that was fucking sad I nevertheless had a blast, I have a few vague memories of reruns of the original anime on Cartoon Network as a kid, but it was so cheap and archaic, this movie was like what you wished SPEED RACER was, that is to say not cheap and archaic but fucking awesome

    I had hopes that this would be the start of quality anime/manga adaptions but sadly the box office failures of this and SCOTT PILGRIM (not to mention DRAGON’S BALLS) put the kibosh on that, though at least SPEED RACER proves it can be done fantastically well

  3. and MY GOD I still can’t believe 2008 was half a decade ago, where has all this time gone?

  4. Man, 2008 was a REALLY shitty year for me. My cat died and I lost my job in the worst possible way with the danger of me facing some time behind bars, because apparently one of my co-workers or even my boss didn’t like me. Then I didn’t talk to my mother for a full year (which was actually pretty nice for a change), but DAMN, fuck 2008.

  5. it’s ok CJ, as I said in the X FILES thread, 2008 was generally pretty shitty for me too

  6. at least it was a pretty good year for movies though

  7. It was especially good for misunderstood and underrated movies! Come on, we got SPEED RACER, HANCOCK, CRYSTAL SKULL and HELLBOY 2!

  8. I saw a ton of movies in the theater that year, including shitty ones that I don’t even know why I did, like MUMMY 3 and SEX DRIVE, I guess to be honest I just wanted to get out of the house and away from my problems

    one reason why it sucked was that was the year the negative aspects of the internet finally started to weigh me down, after two years that initial wow factor of the net started to fade away and all the racism, paranoia and general assholery of it finally started to get to me and made me more depressed than I already was

  9. 2008 could have ended in January, when RAMBO was released. All else is irrelevant.

    That being said, SPEED RACER is an odd case study. Cartoon of which I have a vague knowledge and for which I have zero nostalgic feelings? Yup. Needs a “remake” with a cast of actors that I don’t like or am indifferent to (no offense, Chim Chim)? Nope. Great filmatists at the helm? Yup. Wacky filmatic style that should annoy the shit out of me and punish my eyeballs? Yes; and no. Does it work? Hell yes.

    In conclusion I apologize for referring to SPEED RACER as a “case study.” Great films deserve better, and this is the kind of great film (live action cartoon remake/update pedigree be damned) we all wish were more prevalent whenever we bitch about a lack of great films among The Films of Cinema.

  10. oh yeah, didn’t the monkey that played Chim Chim go apeshit and attack somebody on the set?

  11. 2008 was the year my Favourite aunt, my dog and my childhood sweetheart killed each other in a Mexican stand off.

  12. Every once in a while, I think that maybe I should give Speed Racer a try. After all, so many people seem to like it. But then, the positive reviews always make it sound so terrible.

  13. I’ve never understood what turns people off about this film. Great script, fantastic car sequences, great (if obvious) casting. I don’t recall people getting upset with the day-glo colors in Wizard of Oz, in fact I think it’s one of the things folks like about that film.

    Particularly when there are just 2 characters in a scene, the acting is occasionally wooden and awkward in a Star Wars-prequel, ‘we’re not exactly comfortable in a total green screen environment’ way. I suppose that’s the price of admission. The final bit on stage at the Grand Prix seems especially weirdly staged to me but oh well.

    All of that falls away once they get in the cars and we get truly inventive ways of moving between characters and timelines. Vern has already hit most of them but I love how Royalton describes Speed’s next race and it starts to happen that way, is it real or just illustrating what he’s saying?

    All while staying completely true to the spirit of the source material (you’ve got a commentator yelling out “Speed Racer Go!” in the climax for Pete’s sake, that’s awesome!). And the sound is fantastic, turn it up and the earth truly shakes when the Mach 5 bounces on the desert floor etc etc.

    Getting the tone right in a goofy movie is very hard to do and when it works that goes a long way with me. Matthew Fox totally nails the uncompromising seriousness of Racer X, even when he’s belting out “Watch the blindside!” As Speed is targeted by a buzzing bees’ nest. Come on, that’s just good fun.

  14. If there was ever a movie that got screwed by not being shot in 3D! They should have kept Zac Efron, replaced Ricci with Vanessa Hudgens, paid off Disney, and had a pop hit.

  15. Thank you for that Brad Wesley quote. That made my day.

  16. What Brad Wesley quote, Zac? The only one that ever leaps to my mind is “Elvis… play something with BALLS!”.

    Never saw the Speed Racer movie at the time of its release; can’t bring myself to see it now. The original Japanese anime kinda imprinted itself upon my psyche ‘n’ stuff. Not all aspects of it appealed, mind you. Pops was tolerable, Speed often seemed like a bit of a mook, and I always sensed Trixie was a dirty, dirty tramp underneath it all. But Spritle & Chim Chim were the shit, and Racer X defined a unique category of cool all by himself. Plus that theme song… impossible to shake off, but in a good way.

  17. As someone who did not care for the cartoon as a child and have no love for The Matrix movies I really can’t help but love Speed Racer. In terms of movies in the 2000s it’s up there with Children of Men and City of G-d in terms of what I think are the best movies of this new century.

    Seriously, the first 20 minutes of this movie is just a masterwork.

  18. Count me in as a fan. I remember just avoiding this in theaters, but only checking it out because (1) Vern liked it, and (2) Roeper/Phillips when they were on Ebert’s old show gave it thumbs up.

    I think what I admire about SR, among other things, is that its at heart sincerely a saturday morning cartoon with the great energy and the wild wacky colorful universe that is matter of fact for these characters. The only other recent film that captured that energy and sensationalist joy was maybe THE AVENGERS, but SR was itself a live-action cartoon, and for once that’s not meant as an insult.

  19. Agree 100%, I simply do not understand how people didn’t like this movie.

    I loved it from the first time I saw it, probably one of the best times I had in a theatre since I saw Jurassic Park for the first time.

    Too bad Warner shit the bed on the Blu-ray and didn’t include lossless audio…they need to right that wrong!

  20. Another fan here and I didn’t give a damn about this cartoon either. By the time I was growing up the reruns seemed very outdated and kinda corny. Like those shitty Hanna Barbera cartoons; but the movie despite adhering to that spirit was extremely charming. This movie was the truth and completely redeemed the Wachowskis in my eyes after the massive disappointment I felt with THE MATRIX RELOADED.

  21. I respect the hell out of this movie and what the Wachowski’s tried. But, I don’t know, I also feel like it could’ve been better if someone, at any point, had looked at the 2 1/2 hour running time and said, cut it back. Andy and Lana are true masters of visual storytelling, but whenever it comes time to convey information through more standard means, the whole thing grinds to a halt. It’s ballsy as hell to build your family movie around stock options, but I don’t think the payoff was necessarily worth it.

    Jeez, writing that out, I had a thought: What would happen if the Wachowski’s made a movie that was 100% dialogue free?

  22. I’ve always wanted to see this one and never gotten around to it. I feel it’s the type of movie I would appreciate more than some of the Wachowskis’ other stuff. I will look out for it.

  23. This is Sega Blue Skies: The Movie. Outrun, Afterburner, Sonic, all that shit, on screen. the idea of using a racing ‘ghost’ (which is basically a recording of a game’s time on a lap that you race against) as an emotional moment between Racer X and Speed is BRILLIANT, and its one of many moments like that. such a great movie

  24. Have on DVD

    Am not disappointed after multiple viewings

  25. Loved the original cartoon when it aired on MTV. I was worried this would be a total failure and would not go to see it in theatres. (Okay that, and we typically had no sitter.) Watched it on a movie channel and got mad at myself. The casting was damn near perfect all around.

    My son was a baby when this came out. One of my favorite memories of him at that age was grooving out to the extended version of the theme song redone for this movie. It stuck with him so much he squealed in the middle of a store when he saw a Mach 5 Hot Wheels car. (Yeah, I bought it.)

  26. Jed From The Chatroom

    September 11th, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Including three IMAX trips(one on philocybin), I have seen SR in theaters more than any movie ever.

    My thirtieth birthday I christened “Race Car Day” and gave friends SR Hot Wheels as hobbit birthday presents. My friends refer to Speed Racer as “[jed]’s autism.”

    If I were a bit more motivated, I would cut a fan trailer/anime music video using Kanye’s “Flashing Lights”–if you play the track and watch the music video for the single on the OST, you have my proof-of-concept.

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a complete Matrix Trilogy apologist.

    Score by Michael G is incredible.

    Don’t ask me to choose between DRIVE and SPEED RACER.

  27. Jed From The Chatroom – you were only 13 when SPEED RACER (the movie) came out? guess I’m no longer the youngest person here!

  28. 30th, Griff. Not 13th. ;)

  29. This movie really won me back to the Wachowskis. I had all but given up on them after watching the first Matrix sequel. I also really liked Cloud Atlas and hope those two get to continue following their bizarre muse. I’ve even thought about going back to watch the entire Matrix trilogy (I never got around to seeing the third movie). But I’ve been a little hesitant.

    With Speed Racer I especially love how the Wachowskis smuggled in an anticorporate message. You would think there would have been more of this in popular culture following the Lehman Brothers collapse, but it hasn’t happened. You can look at the war on terror in pop culture, but you apparently can’t look at corporate hubris.

  30. Finally got around to watching this after Vern’s flashback and it resonated a lot more than I expected it to. Another one unfairly maligned for trying something different. Also got round to Iron Man 2, which I was glad to find undeserving of the flack it received. Not perfect but, like Speed Racer, looks great and has swagger by the bucket load.

  31. After the increasingly pretentious blather of the MATRIX sequels, SR took me by surprise, a nice blend of sensation and sentiment. RBatty024 makes a good point; I think the only mega-swindler who’s shown up in some name-has-been-changed form in the movies in the last five years is Bernie Madoff. And he’s an easy target. But the terror bogey keeps getting milked. The phony flag-waving in OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is right up there with the worst of the ’50s Red Scare melodramas.

  32. The second movie after Cradle of Light that I have watched because of an Outlawvern Flashback. While the sharkpunching and murdering ex boyfriends was nice, this one blew me away. I can’t believe how completely into Speed Racer I was by the end.

  33. Fuck yes, one of my fave movies of the last decade. Great follow-up review.

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