Speed Racer (2008)

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment a movie’s reputation crosses the line dividing underrated gem and overrated misfire, but the live-action Speed Racer reboot is getting dangerously close to crossing that threshold. After a string of cult hits with Bound, The Matrix, and V for Vendetta, the Wachkowskis got their first taste of massive critical & financial failure when Speed Racer flopped in wide release. In development under several creative teams since 1992 and racking up a budget well over the $100 million mark, the project was likely doomed from the start, but what the Wachowskis delivered was far more bizarrely energetic & personally enthusiastic than what you’d typically expect from major blockbusters that suffer similar growing pains. Speed Racer’s green screen vision of a live-action hyperreality where everything from future sport car races on impossible Hot Wheels-style tracks to pancake breakfasts in a small suburban home feels equally, eye-bleedingly cartoonish is an intense sugar rush of weird ideas I wish even half of all summertime blockbusters could stack up to. The problem is this enthusiasm amounts to an unwieldy, 140 minute long story that’s more epic in length than it is in scale, shoveling that visual sugar into audience’s mouths by the truckload instead of the spoonful. As much as I empathize with dedicated fans of the film who wish to counteract the disregard for this weirdo visual energy by hailing it as a masterpiece, I have to admit that the film is ultimately Too Much of itself. Its cumulative effect is impressive, but exhausting.

Emile Hirsch stars as the titular Speed Racer, a suburban racecar driver who struggles to live in the shadow of his presumed-dead brother, Rex Racer. Speedy has a team of helping hands hoisting up his legacy (as all racecar drivers do), including a parental power couple played by John Goodman & Susan Sarandon and a ride or die love interest played by Christina Ricci. Outside a subplot concerning the death/disappearance of Rex Racer & the not-so-secret identity of the mysterious outlaw Racer X, the story mostly concerns Speedy’s struggles with fame as he’s called up to the big leagues by major corporate sponsors. A dichotomy between small, wholesome racing families and massive big money corporations is drawn as Speedy is asked to participate in a rigged system where racecar driving is treated like pro wrestling: scripted sports entertainment. I don’t have a mind specifically geared to care about cars, but the video game landscapes where these races are staged are a beautiful sight to behold. Speed Racer can often devolve into a jumbled mess of flashback-corrupted timelines and go-nowhere Gags For The Kids involving a goof-em-up chimpanzee, but its story about a young upstart toppling an evil corporation through a pure, passionate dedication to his sport is certainly infectious, especially when paired with this kind of sci-fi, Rollerballish futurism. I’m not sure early scenes detailing Speed Racer’s childhood troubles adjusting to schoolwork & literally competing with his brother’s memory have to be nearly as extensive as they are, but they do help establish the heightened, color-intense surreality of a child’s imagination that commands the film’s overall aesthetic. In terms of plot, Speed Racer‘s major flaw might be that there’s too much of it, possibly a result of adapting pre-existing manga & anime source material for s standalone feature.

I don’t mean to sound overly negative on the Wachowskis’ aggressively strange, admirably overreaching cartoon vision. I was entirely sold on Speed Racer as an ambitious, singular work of world-building through simple CGI, the way Steven Chow features often impress me in their unembarrassed embrace of the artform. The way characters feel entirely separate from their background environments (which feature the most artificial-looking Nature exteriors since Douglas Sirk) is very much in tune with the art of comic book panels & anime action sequences, maybe more so than any other live-action film outside Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. The way the film clashes a wholesome, nostalgic worldview represented in old-timey racing footage from the silent era and line readings of “Jeepers!” & “Cool beans!” against a ludicrous future overrun by segways & impossible superhighways is a beautifully rendered aesthetic I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a film before. I totally agree with Speed Racer apologists & devotees who contend that the alternate reality fantasy the Wachowskis crafted here should not have been dismissed outright (the way I readily dismissed their sci-fi adventure epic Jupiter Ascending without blinking). What keeps me from hailing the work as a overlooked masterpiece, though, is the way that fantasy is made to be exhausting by something as easily fixable as the film’s length. After about 80 minutes of Speed Racer the film had offered an incredible cartoon hyperreality the world has never seen before. The only thing it can do for the hour that follows, however, is offer more of what you’ve already seen. As delighted as I was by any of the film’s in-the-moment surprises (one gag involving a weaponized beehive in particular had me choking on my wine), the film’s overall effect was just Too Much of a Good Thing. If Speed Racer were an hour shorter I’d likely be joining in the praise of it as an overlooked masterpiece. As is, I can only appreciate it as a fascinating, sprawling mess of deliciously bizarre, enthusiastic ideas that long outlive their welcome.

-Brandon Ledet

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