Now more than ever, we need Speed. Racer, that is.
In a matter of months, we’ve seen the record for Biggest Sham Press Conference set and broken, each time by a pro sports star. First there was the invite-only, no-questions-please, moist-eyed mea culpa by a certain Waffle House waitress-banging golfer desperate to maintain a shred of public sympathy (or at least preserve an endorsement or two). Then came the ethics-challenged decision of ESPN (an entity that grows more bloated with self-importance by the ticker roll) to manufacture an entire hour over the announcement of where a certain royally nicknamed basketball player would preside next season.
Both events smacked of ego and, though staged as “news,” were as tightly choreographed as a Rockettes routine. The most depressing aspect of their collective impact isn’t that millions of people tuned into these counterfeit affairs (portions of which were then replayed ad infinitum by alleged news entities, thus legitimizing them in the public eye), it’s that their “success” provides a blueprint for future use by those with too much self-regard and too little self-awareness.
Speed Racer would be embarrassed by such hoopla. Speed is a man of action. He doesn’t talk about winning, he does it. He relies on work ethic and skill to overcome limited resources. He respects his family and team, choosing to repay their loyalty to him even when offered more money and, just maybe, a better shot at winning. He is an independent and idealistic thinker, unafraid to challenge the pack or sacrifice personal glory for the greater good. He is quick to accept responsibility for his decisions, even when wrong. He is the best at what he does, but he doesn’t let pride inform his judgment.
In short, Speed Racer is a hero for our times. Unfortunately his moment in the sun—2008’s live-action version of the early manga/anime crossover hit that bears his name—was widely panned by critics and ignored by audiences.
Directors of the sensual, darkly comic Bound and the hit-and-miss Matrix trilogy, Andy and Lana Wachowski may seem an odd choice to give life to a cartoon remembered as fondly for its goofiness (the rapidly dubbed expository dialogue, characters with names like Snake Oiler) as for its running theme of a principled family business doing battle against unscrupulous corporations via outlandish races, all rendered with quick cuts and a jelly-bean color palette.
But the Wachowskis actually seem liberated by the simplicity of the story and working within the confines of a well-known franchise. Employing their formidable and ever-expanding bag of cinematic tricks, the Wachowskis manage to be true to the Americanized version of the Japanese Mach Go Go Go (the movie’s sleek, thundering Mach 5 has replaced Tim Burton’s jet-engined Batmobile as the film car I most want to take for spin) while putting a fresh coat of primary colored paint on the proceedings (the thankfully pre-3D CGI here is used to create an immersive, living cartoon).
The result is a muscular, breakneck entertainment that keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and rarely lets its foot off the accelerator.
The movie, er, speeds ahead with such imaginative visual momentum that one can almost appreciate it as a postmodern art film for 10-year-old boys (and their Hot Wheels-loving dads). The opening alone is a marvel of construction, as Speed (Emile Hirsch, a nice balance of aw-shucks and gritty determination) is embroiled in a race which is interspersed with flashbacks to his youth as a distracted student and the introduction of the Racer family (including Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, lending humanity to their digital surroundings), gal pal Trixie (a plucky Christina Ricci, whose bob haircut accentuates her Osamu Tezuka-style eyes) and closeted1 mechanic Sparky; we also witness the fall of Speed’s older brother Rex and the rise of Racer X (a surprising Matthew Fox, who infuses the enigmatic driver with deadpan gravitas).
As the setpiece progresses, it’s as if Speed is trying to outrun his past while racing the specter of his (late?) brother. But he pulls up at the last minute, as past and present merge, and we learn everything we need to know about Speed’s moral compass.
The strength of Speed’s family ties are quickly put to the test by E.P. Arnold Royalton (British actor Roger Allam having a gloriously greasy good time). Royalton heads a conglomerate that lavishes its racers with the best training and equipment available (a zippy montage provides the outlandish details), and he attempts to convince Speed that his best shot for victory lies in selling out the family racing team to Royalton Industries.
Speed, of course, declines, knowing that ability backed up by hard work and passion can occasionally win out over buying one’s way to victory (well, at least it can in the movies).
From there, the film becomes a, um, driving metaphor for staying true to one’s dream and a screed about the pervasive power of corporations. This is also where many critics found fault.
Oh, the hypocrisy, more than a few film writers wailed, of a hundred-million-dollar-plus movie (one backed by monolith AOL Time-Warner, no less) having its hero battle corporate greed and corruption.
Would the film’s message have been more palatable had the movie cost $10 million and been produced by, say, Newmarket or Magnolia? Perhaps The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane can take a break from brainstorming Tom Wolfe references to apply to kids’ movies and come up with a sliding scale for budgets and the corresponding social commentary allowed. If anything, the Wachowskis deserve credit for adhering to the cartoon’s ideals even as it throws stones at the source of their paychecks.
Like any car, Speed Racer has its clunky moments. At just over two hours, it’s a little long for its plot, which is crammed with details about stocks, mergers and price fixing that, though timely, are too heavy for most adults, let alone children. But there is enough humor and visual flair for kids and grown-ups alike—down to the graphic flourishes of the racing posters that line Speed’s walls and the T-shirt homages to the Rolling Stones tongue and Che Guevara—to more than make up for the brief stretches of play-by-play dialogue.
Speed Racer climaxes with a roughly 10-minute race sequence that rivals its opening as pop art in motion, and it culminates in a moment that calls to mind the crossover in 2001, albeit with a more rote resolution (note to MLB and FIFA: It also teaches us why instant replay is important).
Although Speed Racer sprang from Japanese imagination during that country’s post-war industrial growth, Speed and his family also reflect the most appealing aspects of the traditional American persona: self-made, close-knit and hard-working. Speed has transcended countries and generations to rise again as a hero seemingly custom-built for these times; maybe someone just needs to stage a press conference to spread the word on his behalf.
1When I rewatched some of the early Speed Racer episodes as an adult (cartoons aren’t just for kids, dammit!), I detected more than a touch of homoerotic subtext between Sparky and Speed. And while Sparky is not portrayed as overtly gay in the movie (not that there would be anything wrong with that), the Wachowskis do have fun with the implications, including this exchange prior to the climactic race:
Sparky: “How ya feelin’?”
Speed: “It’s big.”
Sparky: “That cockpit’s the exact same size it was at Thunderhead.”
Sparky: “I want to thank you for what could be the most exciting moment in my life.”
Speed: “I couldn’t have got here without you.”
Sparky: “I’m looking forward to that cold milk.”
Speed: “Me too.”