Why 'Speed Racer' Is Way Better Than You Remember


“I’m sure you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed.” -Royalton (Roger Allam), “Speed Racer”

When the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer” opened five years ago today... it didn’t. As a hyper-stylized live-action adaptation of the classic cartoon, it proved especially divisive to critics, and as a family-friendly follow-up to their “Matrix” trilogy, it failed to draw audiences as well, ending its domestic run with a gross just shy of $44 million. Even worldwide numbers couldn’t compensate for such a shortfall.

However, like any good underdog, “Speed Racer” has found its fair share of champions, and when presently greeted with the sterile spectacle of a Joseph Kosinski film or the garish visuals of a Baz Luhrmann outing, it’s actually quite easy to think that the Wachowski siblings were on the right track, so to speak. For some -- hell, maybe even most -- all three experiences are equally unwelcome in their aggressive luster. For me, “Racer” easily leads the pack, and not just for its shiny style...

...although that’s as good a place to start as any. For all the light trails, lens flares and continuous transitions crammed into each and every frame, the Wachowskis brought the same clean action geography to “Racer” that they did to each “Matrix” film (and if nothing else, we can all agree that “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” are at their most coherent when characters are fighting instead of talking). Each race takes place against a distinctly different setting; each location with its own unique climate and apparent architecture; each competitor assigned a motif that extended to their costumes, cars and weapons. In kind, Speed (Emile Hirsch, anchoring an entirely game ensemble) wields his gadget-laden vehicle with increasing variety, an extension of self that initially grinds and flips with all the grace of a skateboard until capable of full-on “car-fu,” hubcap-level swordplay and defense against more medieval maces and the like.

These sequences are frantic, to be sure, yet also fashioned with the precision and pop of a great comic-book panel. (It makes one relieved that the film didn’t have to succumb to the hastily post-converted 3-D trend in the wake of the following year’s “Avatar.”) Of course, 135 minutes of non-stop visual input is inevitably tiring -- I agree with others that the film would have been better served by Speed’s refusal to join the villainous Royalton team right off the bat instead of deliberating, but even the downtime between races leads more often to hand-to-hand fights than solemn speeches about doing what’s right in an underhanded world.

That defiantly anti-corporate stance is especially amusing given Warner Brothers’ repeated indulgences on part of the Wachowskis, agreeing to distribute their similarly challenging “Cloud Atlas” last year and earning even less with it in the end. (On that note, I’d eagerly recommend catching up with that one, as it is now available on iTunes and soon out on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD/etc.) Susan Sarandon’s Mom Racer even goes on to literalize the correlation by telling Speed that “I go to the races to watch you make art.” Amid the overly earnest tone, (almost) squeaky-clean humor and familiar messages about the value of teamwork and the preservation of integrity is the rare film family that’s as strong at the start as they are by the end.

Along similarly wholesome, if obvious, lines is the fact that the aptly-named Speed embodies a generation of children repeatedly recognized for their attention-deficit tendencies, kids who might very well most appreciative of a movie every bit as hyperactive as they are. The different-is-okay moral of the story isn’t as striking as the fact that a young Trixie only finds herself compelled to punch a snobby classmate when she calls Speed a “retard.” It’s that defense by his friends, encouragement by his family and rare quiet on his own that sees Speed Racer through to the finish line, and I’d argue that those same qualities are what will keep “Speed Racer” cherished for the next five years and then some.