Review: Speed Racer

Go Speed Racer, go! Right into the bottom of the bargain bin. It’s no secret that the Wachowski brothers’ glorious renewal of the Speed Racer franchise didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Criticised as being too convoluted for a children’s movie, and too simplistic for adults, it crashed and burned like any old villain of the week. But was it really deserving of such critical abuse – or commercial failure?

Speed's "watch the film or I'll keep on pouting" plan was doomed to failure.

Speed's "watch the film or I'll keep on pouting" plan was doomed to failure.

For all the talk of ‘over-complicated story’, the first thing to jump out at any viewer of Speed Racer is its dedication to aesthetics. And not just in the glorious race sequences – the entire film is dazzling, making many and varied use of colour. However, where films like The Fall make use of natural, almost painterly tones, Speed Racer is wilfully artificial – a sugar rush of over-saturated colours. In many films – even many children’s films – this would be a mistake, a confounding, unnatural style which would threaten to drag any suspended disbelief right back down to earth. In a film conceived and executed as an homage to the excessive stylings of early Japanese animation, however, it’s perfect.

Not only does bring to mind the original cartoon series for nostalgic viewers, but the fantastical use of colour in the more mundane scenes helps integrate them with the races – races which, with their presentation of terribly warped physics and unbelievably talented drivers, would otherwise stick out like a sore thumb against any live-action sequences. But even with this pleasingly unique presentation, it is the live-action sequences which are responsible for most of the criticism directed at Speed Racer.

We’ve already mentioned the overly-complex plot: while this viewer was lucky enough not to be left befuddled by the film, clearly a lot of people were left dazed by the stock-market oriented machinations undertaken by the evil sponsors, led by blustering British villain Arnold Royalton. And indeed, you have to question the wisdom of having such a subplot in a children’s film. That being said, whether you understand it or not, the portrayal of the villains is excellent throughout – the ever-entertaining Roger Allam portrays the aformentioned Royalton to perfection, while a supporting cast of pseudo-Victorian gangsters and ninjas provide entertaining comic relief.

How could a man in a white suit with a pink shirt /not/ be evil?

How could a man in a white suit with a pink shirt /not/ be evil?

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the comedy characters on the protagonists’ side of the fence. Racer-family mechanic Sparky misfires in his role as a clumsy slapstick, but his stale humour is nothing compared to the unadulterated misery brought on by the inclusion of Spritle and Chim Chim – younger brother of Speed and pet monkey, respectively. While both are directed lifted from the cartoon series and portrayed in an accurate manner, the fact is that they are exceedingly painful to watch, except for the very youngest viewers. The film would have greatly benefited from an editor going through and removing every scene in which they star – absolutely nothing of worth would have been lost.

All of these issues have been torn into by critics, and with some justification, but they do not cripple the film. No, the most important aspect of the film is its races, and here it delivers with aplomb. If the live-action sequences were dazzling, the CG car battles are a complete sensory overload. Intense colours and an incredible sense of speed are matched by frenetic action and constant chatter from drivers; their support crews and commentators: these are races with no long, solitary drives back into position – every scene is a battle, with drivers fighting physically and verbally. They get no respite, and neither do we – and it’s breathtaking for it. Indeed, one thing becomes clear: this is a film not just made for children or for fans of the original series – this is a film for gamers. The language of the film – visual and literal – is heavily game-influenced: the candy-cane colours already mentioned do not just heark back to old cartoon series – they heark also to old computer games, particularly the arcade racers of the late 80’s and 90’s. Repeatedly we see technology familiar to gamers: the film opens with Speed racing the ‘ghost’ of his brother: represented by a translucent racing vehicle exactly like the ‘ghost’ cars found in computer games. The weapons systems built into the vehicles remind viewers of Wacky Racers – they also remind gamers of countless racing games, from Mario Kart to Wipeout. And in case we don’t get the message, the weapons are activated by buttons on the steering wheel – buttons marked A-F.

Speed Racer

This one speaks for itself. Glorious, and even more spectacular in motion.

These races are what keeps the attention: even though the conclusion is foregone (this is a Hollywood film for children, after all), we’re kept on the edge of our seat by the pure thrill of the race. It’s as though the Wachowski brothers have looked back at their most famous series and realised where they went wrong: in turning a spectacle into philosophical drudgery. Speed Racer may get a little bogged down with its plot on occasion, but it always returns to the joy of its action sequences: it is visceral, it is exciting, and it is entertainment at its purest.  That character development is limited at best, that its overly-dense plot fails to hide the fact that this is essentially fluff: these matter naught. When the film wants to be, it is absolutely glorious, and sometimes that’s enough.

Spectacular out of Twenty

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