A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #18

SPEED RACER jjjj

2008, PG, 135 mins.

Emile Hirsch: Speed Racer / Christina Ricci: Trixie / John Goodman: Pops Racer / Susan Sarandon: Mom Racer / Matthew Fox: Racer X / Roger Allam: Royalton / Paulie Litt: Spritle / Kick Gurry: Sparky

Written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski

SPEED RACER Ė directed by The Wachowski Brothers and based on the 1960ís Japanese magna and anima series, Mach GoGoGo Ė is a retina-exploding, rip-roaring, high octane, rainbow colored, technological triumph.  From a sheer sensory perspective, there has never been anything like it:  It's a stupendous visual experience.  Watching it is kind of akin to having every single brightly hued candy from the convenience store isle hurtled at you at super sonic speeds.  

This should come of absolutely no surprise, considering that the Wachowskis utterly revolutionized and redefined the modern action film with their MATRIX trilogy.  What is surprising is that SPEED RACER is not a lavishly nihilistic, dreary, and scary post-apocalyptic story of decay and misery that the MATRIX films were.  No, instead this film is a boisterous, giddy, sugar-rush of explosive digital colors and glowing vistas that goes well beyond over-the-top and into the uncharted territory of sublime, LSD-hallucinogenic energy.  Most crucially, of course, is that this film is wicked and insane fun, wrapped in a wild and exuberant package of ferocious technological marvels.  In an age of incredibly realized CGI effects, SPEED RACER is undeniably state-of-the-art; it's a masterpiece of phantasmagoric candy for the senses. 

There are few films that are as aggressively stylized as this one, almost to the point where the effects stand up and declare how they are transforming the medium.  This is one of those very rare film-going experiences where its human element takes a decided back seat to the circus sheen of its artifice.  This is not a criticism, though.  For what SPEED RACER does, itís indubitably brilliant and bold.  What you can sense throughout its trippy and zippy 135 minutes is that the Wachowskis are absolutely fanatical with fetishistic glee and enthusiasm for the Japanese source material, down to every single inch of every frame of the film.  The goofy, carefree, gee-whiz innocence and energy of Mach GoGoGo is fully realized here with a go-for-broke and donít-look-back visual opulence.   What the brothers have done Ė and done so passionately Ė is to take the iconic and low tech 60ís anime and create their own distinctively creative film that hybrids dazzling action, electrifying visuals, and a campy, feverously pleasurable, and breezy aura.  SPEED RACER will be remembered for being a family centric and colorful magnum opus of big budget, summer blockbuster movie magic and showmanship. 

Itís no wonder why the human element will play second fiddle to the filmís vibrantly vigorous palette.  I think thatís precisely the intention here.  This film, like STAR WARS or THE LORD OF THE RINGS, gallantly imagines any fictitious landscape and conceives it without any apparent boundaries to the imagination of its creators.   Yes, the film is ostentatiously artificial (there are over 2000 shots that contain some sort of computer trickery and tinkering), but its artificiality is crucial to its impact.  What the Wachowskis do in SPEED RACER is imagine the unimaginable by creating a neon-colored, shiny, alternative futuristic universe that could never, ever possibly exist in the realm of the real world.  Shooting the film with real sets and locations would have all but ruined the effect.  Instead of going for realism, the Wachowskis go for a hyperrealism that tries to find a difficult balance between live action and the aesthetic of anime.  The characters donít simply appear in this crazy, manically envisioned world; they fully inhabit it.  In turn, the filmís universe engulfs viewers so we feel a part of it.  As a result, SPEED RACER deserves placing on a shot list of pioneering films for how it works as a machine designed exclusively to entertain and dazzle filmgoers.   

This whole film exists in a wonky and vivacious Never-neverland where colors explode everywhere (like DICK TRACY, this film understands and honors the palette of comic books and magna).  Environments vary to alarming degrees, from idyllic suburban American (here, the film looks like it belongs in the 50ís  or 60ís) and then there are moments where we witness limitlessly huge cityscapes that look like L.A. from BLADE RUNNER that have been spray painted with every conceivable florescent shade.   

Then there are the race tracks, which donít exists in any conventional sense in a world marred by physics and laws of gravity.  The cars in this film donít simply drive across the race track, the fly, jump, summersault, flip, and spin their way to victory.  The tracks themselves have a life of their own too.  We are not talking a few hundred miles of laps here, folks.  The tracks envisioned by the Wachowskis are like insane theme park roller coasters from hell with 360 degree loops, impossible right angled corners, roads that careen around mountains and bodies of water, all while the muscled up autos trek through them like they just had napalm dropped in their tanks with a small match lit inside.  Not only do they drive unfeasibly fast, they can drive up walls, propel themselves over obstructions with stilt like legs, and - in one sly moment - their wheels brandish hubcap spears that pop out to stab at their opponents tires.  Some cars even have hubcaps that protrude shields that fight against other spear hubcap attacks.  If anything, SPEED RACER is outrageously overwhelming and exhausting as a visual-auditory experience and its rush of head trippiní, psychedelically abstract trickery is powerful. 

The filmís story has a happy-go-lucky and lighthearted intensity and spunk, even when it develops a mantra against corporate greed and Capitalistic Darwinism.  The film quickly introduces us to the Racer Family, which includes Pops Racer (John Goodman, good here); Rex Racer (Scott Porter); Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon, doing decent work even when surrounded by green screens); Spritle Racer (Paulie Litt, displaying good slapstick comic timing), and, yes, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, playing the hero with wide-eyed guts and perseverance).  There is also the cute, sexy, and "cool as beans" Trixie (Christina Ricci, having fun with her small role of the girlfriend).  Rex himself does not fare too long in the story, as an early flashback shows him dying in a horrible auto crash, which forever is in the back of Speedís memories of him.  This tragic event further propels him to want to be a racing dynamo. 

Speed is uncommonly gifted as racecar driver with his tricked out Mach 5.  After he wins a big, high marquee race he catches the eye of Royalton (Roger Allam, playing his part with an appropriate level of juicy, cartoonish evilness and wickedness).  Royalton wants to sign Speed, but all of his bribes do nothing to break the spirit of the kid, who only races because he loves it.  Royalton then declares Speed his number one enemy, while Speed tries to carve out a name for himself and attempts to overcome the omnipotent power of Royaltonís racing empire (which, incidentally, fixes races).  Speed has his wits, skills, and his family to help guide him along the way, but he also finds an ally in the form of the enigmatic and mysterious  Racer X (Matthew Fox), whom looks kind of like a cross between The Phantom and the gimp from PULP FICTION.   

If there was one small criticism of SPEED RACER then it would be that its underlining story of the villainís corruption and the manner he rigs big races is a bit too convoluted for younger audience members, not to mention that the film drags on perhaps a little too long (at 135 minutes, SPEED RACER is about 10-15 minutes too long, at least to keep young tykes from anxiously squirming in their theatre seats).  The filmís complicated and dense flashback structure also may overpower children.  Yet, these are mild concerns that are prevailed over by the filmís sense of delirious, wheezy joviality and cotton candy flavored sweetness to the proceedings.  SPEED RACER flirts with playful merriment and light-heartedness and seemingly puts up a roadblock to all pompous and cynical filmgoers to leave the theatre immediately.  This is certainly a film that can be easy to detest with the wrong frame of mind, but if youíre willing to allow yourself into this captivating world, then the results can be transcending. 

With a budget topping $120 million and a long shoot that involved gigantic green-screened stages in Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, the Wachowskis aimed for the sheen, crispness, and layered look that has permeated anima and cartoons in general.  Using HD video cameras and employing John Gaeto (whom radically changed the movies with his pioneering bullet time effects for THE MATRIX in 1999), the Wachowskis are able to fluently create a live action film that perfectly adheres to the trappings of anime: sharp focus, infinite depth of field between foreground and background images, along with flared-up background explosions and Techno-Color-inspired vistas.  Whatís so inspiring is the way the brothers never feel inhibited by the worlds they envision:  SPEED RACER has a universe that is far, far away from approaching any type of plausible reality, but its kaleidoscope of synthetic richness and sumptuousness is what makes this fake world come alive.    

As they demonstrated with panache, inventiveness, and sheer confidence with THE MATRIX films, the Wachowskis looked intrepidly towards the boundaries of the pioneering visual effects magic and bravely went beyond.  They have done the same, and more so, with their incredibly faithful and passionate live action adaptation of SPEED RACER, where they once again take all the tricks and tools of the trade that they have at their disposal and amazingly create new ones.  The end result will certainly baffle and polarize lay viewers, but for those few of us that precisely understand what the Wachowskis are aiming for in SPEED RACER, then the film simply reveals itself to be a furious and fun filled triumph of delirious and flashy amusement park ride thrills.  The sheer density of the filmís look is astonishing - and sometimes a bit overwhelming - but itís the dynamism and fearless authority the film has with its aesthetic flourishes that are unapologetically inspiring and rousing.  At its heart - and despite the vigorous impact of its seizure inducing spectrums of brightly colored visuals  - SPEED RACER is a pure bit of buoyant escapismÖand one of the most visionary fantasies that Iíve seen.

Go, Speed, go!

  H O M E