The candy-colored adrenaline-surged thrill ride known as Speed Racer is an absolutely discombobulating affair. It is either one of the most dizzyingly incomprehensible mass-market all-ages motion pictures of all time, or the most expensive visual experiment that has ever been made. Adapted from a Japanese animated TV series embraced by American children in the late 1960s, Speed Racer centers itself on the trials and tribulations of the Racer family and their velocity addicted racing prodigy son, Speed, played by Emile Hirsch, the quirkily earnest youth from Imaginary Heroes and The Girl Next Door.
A glamorously post-linear opening sequence notwithstanding, the movie unfolds in relatively straightforward fashion, though the Wachowskis can’t resist an occasional temporal hiccup. Speed and his family (John Goodman as protective Pops, Susan Sarandon as encouraging Mom, Paulie Litt as charmingly annoying Spritle, and pet chimp Chim-Chim) and girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, at her most fetching in a Louise Brooks inspired hairbob) visit the big city at the invitation of automobile mogul E. P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), who seeks to smooth talk them into a corporate sponsorship, but they turn him down.
In response, Royalton sneers at Pop Racer’s backyard mechanic ethic, and goes on a tirade about how the corporate arms of racing always rule the house — that all the Grand Prix races were fixed, and if the Racers don’t play along they’ll get shut out of racing entirely and Racer Motors will be disgraced.
Royalton’s threats unfold visually in some strange temporal space in which they are simultaneously the future and the present all at once. Despite Pops’ insistence that you can’t “change the world by racing cars,” Speed joins an investigative committee/anti-trust task force comprised of the masked Racer X (Matthew Fox), the ethically flexible Taejo Togokhan (played rather shiftily by Asian pop star Rain) and the dutiful Inspector Detector (Benno Furmann).
They go on a cross country rally known as Casa Cristo against an ethnically and culturally diverse pack of unscrupulous cheaters. All of this culminates in an ultimate race at the Grand Prix to prove the value of old-fashioned sportsmanship, unmeddled by corporate interest, where Speed races as an independent contender against the dozens of corporate backed players in an event that has become a meaningless exercise in spectacle.
Speed Racer is quite probably the most explicitly anti-capitalist film with a fast-food merchandising tie in. For a film that is marketed heavily as a celebration of lowest common denominator spectacle and high octane entertainment, it wears a trenchantly independent spirit on its sleeve by choosing themes which celebrate the battle between working-class artisans and uncompromising sportsmen against the deeply parasitical relationship between sporting events and conglomerated automobile manufacturers.
The Racer family and Racer Motors are portrayed as part of a dying breed of DIY craftsmen, while Speed represents the last in a tradition of drivers who maintain a ‘pure’ interest in the sport of racing, and the honor of racing for its own sake. Every individual at the bottom rung of the moral and ethical hierarchy is those whose interests are compromised by other interests: money, fame or security. EVALUATIVE CRITICISM
Unlike the Matrix trilogy of film which directors Andy and Larry Wachowski are best known for, Speed Racer portrays neither an alternate reality metaverse nor a hypothetical future. Rather, Speed Racer is a film that regards the concept of a filmic reality absolutely irrelevant, one which bends and flexes in response to the cinematic conceits its directors choose to employ. It is quite likely that it will come to fuel a brand new generation of excessively ponderous cultural theory journals and over thought media studies courses than The Matrix did.
Consider for example, the opening sequence in which central figures wipe across the screen to create the transition between an intensely dramatic race on a Hot Wheels track on steroids known as Thunderhead and multiple storylines centering around it: young Speed’s lifelong obsession with automobile racing, his reverence for older brother Rex Racer, and Rex’s tragic fall from grace with the family and with racing enthusiasts, and the significance of Speed’s choice to forego breaking a record set by his brother.
The result is a nigh incomprehensible distillation of oodles of back story into the first ten minutes. Additionally an intermission during the surreal Casa Cristo race, which runs frenetically across desert dunes to ice-capped mountain peaks gives us the defining moment of this entire project: Following a series of narrative twists and turns, all the factions involved face off in an elaborate fight scene involving guns, fists, martial arts posturing and monkey poop.
The players involved, in all their garish outfits are the eye candy, but the action is composed of dramatic poses that look rather awesome and heroic. The camera spins and swoops around while sound effects convey all the action. It looks absolutely absurd, but the effect is reminiscent of the old time wu xia films of yore, where the suggestion of action effectively is the action itself.
But for battle poses to stand in for actual violence in a major summer blockbuster film is quite probably more daringly avant garde than any summer blockbuster has a right to be. And there lies the strangeness of Speed Racer: it is probably the most Asian film that America has ever made, incorporating concepts of narrative fracturing, short hand under writing and multiple sub plots that create an effect that is more reminiscent of the manga comic books of Japan, than the anime it is based upon.