2008. Directed by Lilly & Lana Wachowski.
A bacchanal of cheesy excess, the Wachowski’s Speed Racer is a unique incarnation of the family film, bringing the eponymous anime serial to life. Featuring the directors’s patented theme of artistic rebellion against authoritative control, Speed Racer also delivers a blitzkrieg of CGI visuals and a heartwarming story about familial love conquering all.
Speed is an 18 year old racing prodigy, living in the shadow of his brother Rex who died on the track. He races for his family’s independently owned company, valuing his personal tribe and the art of racing over fortune and fame. Speed is approached by Royalton, CEO of a mega corporation, and offered the contract of a lifetime. After he rejects the offer, Royalton retaliates by placing a bounty on Speed’s head, one that other drivers are eager to collect. Speed finds an ally in another independent racing company who asks him for help in The Crucible, the circuit’s most notorious race, in order to ensure that their company will not be consumed by Royalton’s empire. Things become further complicated when Speed is joined by Inspector Detector and the mysterious Racer X, a crime fighting duo who are desperate to put an end to Royalton’s schemes once and for all.
The film took 60 days to shoot entirely on green screen. David Tattersall’s trippy cinematography captures the the cartoonish action in an explosion of neon. The framing is all over the place, with the backgrounds melding with the characters to optically dazzle and confuse whenever the cars are engaged in vehicular combat. Kym Barrett’s costume designs are flawless reproductions from the show, while Hugh Bateup’s art direction recreates not only iconic scenes, but double’s down on the outright insanity of the visual acrobatics. Stephanie Fowler’s makeup has a synthetic quality, allowing each character to mimic their animated counterparts with frightening accuracy, a quality that takes some time getting used to.
The turbulent editing during the race scenes captures the CGI mayhem with a lightning cadence, doubling down on Speed Racer’s relentless visual assault. The action is mostly harmless, with peril never being a factor, but that is part of the charm. The technical gadgetry of the race cars has a neo steampunk feel that is one of the many intriguing aspects of the world Speed Racer creates. Despite the epic run time, many details of the actual universe in which the saga takes place are sadly never explored, using the bulk of the narrative to focus on the contests and the internal struggles of Speed’s family.
The Wachowski’s script has a infectious B movie vibe that replaces traditional acting with ludicrous pantomiming. Every cast member is playing a preconceived role with virtually no freedom to explore the depths of their characters. However, this is not so much a weakness as it is a testament to the directorial vision. The idea was to make a living cartoon and the result is exactly that, complete with the logical flaws that accompany an animated universe. Roger Allam as Royalton chews up the excessive scenery by portraying his character as a walking symbol of corporate greed. Matthew Fox gives a surprisingly good performance as the tough guy Racer X and it’s his story line that elevates the entire affair above the endless clones of family films. Speed Racer has a lot to say when it gives the time to think on its themes of family and artistic freedom, but these moments are few and far between.
Ultimately, this an overlong confusing mess of a film that is a perfect representation of the Wachowski’s volume of work. They consistently pick interesting concepts that, if accomplished, would completely change the game with respect to the medium. Like Cloud Atlas, this is one of the most unique cinematic experiences out there, offering of the first attempts at creating a live action film that is a complete copy of its predecessor. Sometimes, too much, is too much, and the film suffers as a result, collapsing in the final leg of it’s bloated story line. Despite these concessions, witnessing this film for the first time is truly an unforgettable experience.