The Wachowski’s, Larry and Andy as they were then, started to make a name for themselves way back in 1995 and 1996, with their work writing Assassins (the Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas action film) and then writing and directing Bound (the neo-noir crime thriller). Give them a couple more years and they would have created a monster: The Matrix premiered in 1999 to much acclaim and along with its less well received but no less ambitious sequels, the Wachowski’s were now big names in the industry. Five years after the last Matrix film their next project, Speed Racer, appeared on our screens in 2008.
Speed Racer was a popular animated series in the US in the 1960s, translated to English from the original anime Mach GoGoGo. Attach a couple of up-and-coming directors, the work of visual effects designer John Gaeta (the mastermind behind the Bullet-time effect), a very well-respected cast and Michael Giacchino’s score layered on top of the action and breakout visual style and it should all be something very special. So why was it not received so well at the time of release, gaining Golden Raspberry nominations and not even making bank (from a budget of $120million)?
The opening credits and scenes leave you in no doubt about what this film is going to give you: Bright and vivid colours and plenty of movement, this is anime made real. The Wachowski’s used a special layering technique to put both the foreground and background in focus to give the impression of the original manga comic book. In order to recreate the feel of the comic book page and incorporate as much of the magic and mayhem that it entails, Speed Racer was unsurprisingly filmed entirely on green screen.
Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) has lived his life dreaming of becoming only one thing, a racing driver, idolising his older brother and current Racer Motors driver, Rex Racer (Scott Porter and then Matthew Fox). Everyone in the family is committed to and involved in the running of Racer Motors, from Pops (John Goodman) and Sparky (Kick Gurry), through to Mom (Susan Sarandon), Racer’s girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and Racer’s younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his pet chimpanzee Chim-chim (Kenzie and Willy).
However, not all continues to be cosy in the Racer Motors world: Rex goes off the rails and is killed in a notorious cross-country race. Life goes on and with Speed coming of age and taking over being the driver for the family firm, and sweeping all before him, it is not long before EP Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) comes calling.
Royalton makes an enticing offer to race for him but when Speed turns this down, mainly due to Pops’ distrust for large corporations more than anything else, Royalton swears to bring Speed down with whatever means he can muster. But he also opens the eyes of the naive Speed, claiming that races have been fixed for a long, long time by those who seek to gain financially, including Speeds own races. With Royalton making life much harder for Speed and Racer Motors with threats and legal action, Speed turns to Inspector Detector, the head of a Corporate Crimes division of an intelligence agency to try to get one over on the corporate giant.
While the actual racing action is thoroughly engaging, and not a little bit reminiscent of what a real life Mario Kart race would probably look like, the scenes in between are hit and miss. It is this complicated switching between action-racer, corporate shenanigans and undercover investigation that gives Speed Racer an uneasy feel, never committing to any but confusing each other with their complicated plotting and scheming.
The characters are almost entirely shallow, another hint at being two-dimensional and straight off of the page. Speed is really the only one who goes through any kind of development while the rest of the characters are as you would expect: supportive and loving Mom, focused/proud Pops, malevolent and underhand Royalton, bad baddies, annoying and overly resourceful younger brother. Oh, and a sneering lead Royalton racer with a terrible moustache (think Dick Dastardly and you would be right on the money!).
There is a thick thread of capitalism that runs through Speed Racer from the moment Royalton arrives on the scene. The sense that money can buy and do anything and will corrupt all that it touches. Greed, in this instance, is not good. And it takes the small independent, family run Racer Motors to challenge the authority of Royalton. But at the same time, whilst championing the family run Racer Motors, we have family tensions in the father-son relationships, not just once but twice as Pops tries to impose his sense of being first onto Rex and then Speed.
The racing scenes are kinetic, pulse-raising affairs with no small amount of threat and tension but the slapstick comedy is actually a little bit too childish in relation to the tone of the rest of Speed Racer. It seems to be a case of too complex a storyline for young viewers and too childish a tone for the older viewer. In the burgeoning world of comic book films it sought to keep the comic book aesthetic and tone whereas other films of the time like The Dark Knight or Iron Man, took the original concept from page to something much darker and realistic on the screen.
I have been thinking about watching Speed Racer again for quite a while (and a fortuitous find of a Blu-Ray copy for only 75p clinched the deal), with vague memories, not of the story but the unique visual style. And to be fair it still is fantastic to look at, if a little bit too cartoony at times, but it is ultimately let down by the confused tone, a fragmented storyline and not really knowing who its target audience is.
Are you a fan of Speed Racer? Or did it not get off the starting grid for you? Let us know!