REVIEW: Speed Racer [2008]

“See, this race is full of cheaters”

I’m going to preface this review by saying I have no clue about anything “Speed Racer”. I’ve never seen the cartoon, I don’t know the ins and outs or plotlines, nor if the source material was tongue-in-cheek and campy. Truthfully, I am glad I went into the Wachowskis’ film adaptation Speed Racer this way. Perhaps the tone took me by surprise in how grating and annoying it could be at times, (I wanted to kill Spritle and Chim Chim from their first moment on screen), and maybe I wouldn’t have been so taken aback having known that was a crucial part of the world at hand, but otherwise, going in fresh allowed the environment to absorb me in. The film is by no means a masterpiece, heck it isn’t even great, but it is far from the drivel so much I’ve read dismissed it as.

This is a cinematic videogame that assaults the senses. Right down the line, from the crisp visuals with a cartoon-like depth of field; the sheer amount of graphic/computer work; the floating heads flying past the screen in conversation, overlapping each other, mimicking game cut scenes and I believe the original cartoon; to the amateurish voicework from the actors, I felt as though I should have had a controller in my hands, pressing the A through F buttons right along with Speed in his Mach 5. The Wachowskis definitely created a thrill ride that I’m sure was something to behold on the big screen, but it just might not have been quite perfect enough. The animated backgrounds were very obviously just that, and the blatant green screen usage screams at you every second. I believe that the cartoon look may actually detract from the realism because having everything in focus only shows how starkly different the live actors and computer environments are. Without any blurring or shading for depth, the three-dimensional people appear awkwardly flat in their two-dimensional fields. As for the color and the cars, however, you can’t avoid their effectiveness.

Speed Racer excels in the car races. At first I thought it was a little too much, boring me as the vehicles go without me being able to control them. As the movie progressed though, I began to sit back and enjoy the visuals for what they were; I completely bought into the tracks and the cheating and the quirky cast of characters, especially on the cross country race with the hired hands set to take out Speed and his team. I absolutely loved the bit in the ice caves watching the lights trail from the sheer car speed around bends. The cars have so much drift that the lights whipping around curves linger, and the effect is rendered beautifully. If only they didn’t have to cut to the actors so much in the driver’s seat, it would have been that much better. Maybe a complete animated work might have been a more effective use of the technology, especially when you have to watch the reaction shots of the Racer family in the stands jumping with glee. It is so false and cartoonish that it becomes more laughable than endearing.

And this is exactly where the film falls apart—the performances. Even Christina Ricci, with a face built for anime, seems to be hamming it up too much as Trixie. Seldom used anyways, she becomes a cheerleader with such exuberance that you just want to look away. Susan Sarandon may be the best at dialing it down enough to appear real, but John Goodman, on the other hand, as Pops Racer, can’t be complimented in the same way. I actually enjoyed his over-the-top antics, but when he needed to be serious and contemplative, his performance fell flat. And Paulie Litt’s Spirtle … wow, you cannot be more annoying than him. Think Jim Carrey as a young boy, doing crazy things and being loud. Throw in a monkey and you have a duo that adds more to the temptation to shut the film off than comic relief—Jar Jar Binks anyone? With moments such as them pretending to be ninjas, similar to a cartoon they watch on television, cut out against black with bright color lines going across the screen and a later spliced in superimposed warning to the audience that the following moment may be “unsuitable to kootie-prone viewers,” I was completely taken out of the action.

I did, however, enjoy Emile Hirsch, as our titular hero, and Matthew Fox as the mysterious villainous savior Racer X. Both kept their roles steeped in reality while still adding some flair to relate with the more outrageous things going on. They were believable behind the wheel, even though the effects work recalled old television shows that have a stationary car in front of a moving screen with stock traffic footage playing in the background. Both these men emoted well and gave some credibility to an otherwise ludicrous supporting cast. Roger Allam’s Royalton is operating on such a high level of camp that it is hard to take anything happening seriously. His dynamic with the racing world—fixing things and making it all about money—may have been crucial to the plot, but only detracts from what Speed Racer is really about: the racing, and nothing more. Remiscent to the N64 game Extreme-G, I began to invest myself with the racetracks, rooting for the good guys and hoping for as much destruction as possible. The action-heavy Wachowskis do not disappoint in that regard.

In order to appreciate a film such as this, you need to really buy into it all. This is a world where people’s last names are their occupations, (The Racer family, Inspector Detector, etc.), so you shouldn’t be expecting high drama. I do believe, though, that the film ends up being caught in the middle of pure absurdity and true serious storytelling. With a definite moral about looking inside oneself to find what truly matters, to never corrupt yourself into becoming part of the machine, even if you can’t change the deception, I wanted it to be even more apparent on its sleeve. Being a full-blown cartoon might have helped, allowing preconceptions of live action to never find their way in front of just having a good time. When you ask real people to act like cartoons, you have to really be in control of what it is you want to accomplish, because the line between success and dismal failure is very thin. Speed Racer balances the tightrope for the most part, but if it were to slip and fall, I fear it would land on the side full of throwaways that meant well and looked good, but just didn’t have what it took to last.

Speed Racer 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1] EMILE HIRSCH as Speed Racer driving the Mach 6 in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure ‘Speed Racer,’ distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] EMILE HIRSCH as Speed Racer in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure “Speed Racer,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] MATTHEW FOX as Racer X in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure “Speed Racer,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.


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