Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Neglected Gem #73: Speed Racer (2008)

Emile Hirsch in Andy and Lana Wachowski's Speed Racer.

Is there such a thing as a “delayed-onset masterpiece”? Is it possible for a film to be purposefully designed to achieve “cult favourite” status some five-to-ten years after its initial release? It hardly seems like such a thing could (or would) be done intentionally, but it’s hard to ascribe any other methodology to the directing work of Andy and Lana Wachowski. Maybe they’re just continually a few years ahead of the curve?

I’ve described their films as flawed but inspired, and the more I consider their body of work, the less I find that these flaws detract from the experience – whether it’s the Orwellian dystopia of V for Vendetta or the neo-noir cyberthrills of The Matrix and its sequels, the only real issue I have that remains constant is overindulgence. The Wachowskis seem to allow their creativity to get the best of them, and after intoxicating themselves on a subject, attempt to cram all the ideas that emerge into the final product, for good or ill. Perhaps it’s their ability to operate as a duo that stops this from completely crippling each film – keeping each other in check is doubtless one of their many talents – but it does result in longer runtimes and more complicated plots than are necessary to communicate the most exciting and valuable parts of their projects. In every other sense, the Wachowskis have cemented themselves as ingenious and artful filmmakers, providing a unique vision on par with Guillermo del Toro or even Steven Spielberg. With the Wachowskis, you never know what you’re going to get, but you can be sure it’ll be unlike anything else on the marquee.

These Spielbergian tendencies are never more apparent than with Speed Racer, their much-maligned 2008 box-office bomb. A torrent of negative reviews stopped me from seeing the film on its release, but my review of Jupiter Ascending had me thinking that there was perhaps more to the Wachowskis than met the eye, and that Speed Racer might hold some hidden merit. Little did I know that I was not only right on the money, I was about to discover a new favourite film. The film retains much from its source material – a serialized animated show from Japan that aired in the late 1960s – including its starkly bright and hyper-stylized visual style, and its themes of loyalty, family ties, and the idea of a small mom-and-pop racing company facing off against Big Evil Corporate. This theme is represented literally in Racer Motors, owned and operated independently by Pops Racer (John Goodman), his wife Mom (Susan Sarandon), and their son, Speed (Emile Hirsch). With the help of Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), and mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), they must defeat the money-hungry Royalton (Roger Allam, channelling Christopher Hitchens) in his desire to acquire Racer Motors and stop Speed from winning the legendary Grand Prix – all while Speed struggles to live up to the legacy his brother Rex (Scott Porter) left behind after a tragic accident years before. A mysterious rival calling himself Racer X complicates things by concealing his identity and alternately helping and hindering Speed.

 Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Kick Gurry and Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer.

The film’s narrative problems stem from excess, and not incoherence as critics of the day were quick to declare.  All of Speed Racer’s intertwining plot lines, characters, and motivations are perfectly meaningful; some are simply superfluous – like the double-crossing Togokhan (Rain), who allies with Royalton in order to make more money through their company merger than he can on the track. The setup allows for powerful emotional setpieces, such as an early race in which Speed pits himself against the record set by his brother – literally racing against the ghost of Rex, which of course only he can see. My only real gripe with the film is that it would have greatly benefited from more decisive editing, which is true of much, if not all, of the Wachowski canon. (I’d argue that The Matrix is safe, as it packs just as much worldbuilding and exposition into its 136 minutes as Cloud Atlas manages with its beefier 172) In several cases throughout the film you’ll have grasped the purpose of a scene, only to have it continue for anywhere from thirty seconds to several minutes. (If there’s any sign that a film needs trimming, it’s when the audience finds themselves saying “Okay, I get it”.) Somewhere inside the final cut of Speed Racer is one of the tightest family-oriented fantasy action films in history – snip fifteen or twenty minutes, and I’d have nothing to complain about.

Despite this overload of exposition, however, emotional investment is at a surplus. Speed Racer absolutely packs in the heart, providing ample characterization for even the smallest of players, and focusing on the bonds of family loyalty that defy the most formidable odds. Whether or not it occasionally dips into schmaltz is a matter of opinion (I don’t find any of the film’s emotion to be affected), but that’s hardly unexpected in such a heightened universe. The cast is committed to their simple and endearing roles, especially John Goodman, who (appropriately enough) is as close as can be to a living cartoon man, and who throws himself into his character with gusto – his Pops is a man of integrity, whose gruff exterior disguises a depth of personal trauma and a fountain of love for his family. Each actor’s work, down to the surprisingly deft physical comedy from Paulie Litt and his pet chimp Chim-Chim, is as bright, sincere, and pleasing as the primary colours that dominate their costumes. Each race that Speed undertakes, as well, is successively more charged with personal stakes until the final sequence at the Grand Prix, where the atmosphere is positively electrifying.

If half of this excitement is due to the audience rooting for the characters, the other half is thanks to the visual style of the races and the way the cars seem to operate in an exaggerated reality where the laws of physics can bend and twist. Speed’s talent behind the wheel is a gift, which he displays in flourishing flips and death-defying maneuvers that quickly stop seeming ridiculous and begin to dazzle with their inventiveness and daring. If Rod Serling was right in saying that “fantasy is what makes the impossible improbable,” then the young Speed Racer deserves to be counted among the foremost heroes of the genre – his stunts have that special “just crazy enough to work” kind of magic. Critics and moviegoers were starkly divided over Speed Racer’s use of special effects; as one of the first major Hollywood releases for which the vast majority of footage was shot in front of green screen (Robert Rodriguez beat them to the punch with Sin City in 2005, and George Lucas was the ill-fated pioneer with his Star Wars prequel trilogy at the turn of the century), audiences weren’t yet as accepting of this kind of CGI gimmickry as they are now. This makes Speed Racer’s reception more a product of its time than an accurate appraisal – nowadays, the effects look brilliantly stylized and even daring, pulling off the “living cartoon” look two years before Edgar Wright tried the same thing with his own comic book adaptation, Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Everything from the bright and cheerful interiors of the Racer home to the shimmering flashbulbs and zipping speed lines of the racetrack pop out of the screen with colourful intensity. During the Casa Christo rally race, desert sand dunes rise upward and fall away like multilayered craft paper, and frequent use of people’s heads moving laterally to wipe the frame allow the directors to assemble their shots into panels, not unlike the pages of a comic book flipping back and forth. Beyond the pop-art styling, Speed Racer also employs a retro-futurism that extends from the costumes to the gadgetry tucked under the hood of each racer’s car. Rumbling on the starting line, these formidable machines resemble nothing so much as a fleet of Hot Wheels brought to roaring, flame-spitting life – a natural extension of the original animated source material, and a simple, visceral pleasure to watch onscreen.

Speed Racer was at least four years ahead of its time, and it debuted in a difficult slot against heavy hitters like Iron Man and Indiana Jones: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Now, though, it’s a lens through which I see the Wachowskis as filmmakers in the purest, most classic sense: wholly invested in exciting spectacle and heightened emotion, and in infusing their myriad pop culture influences into each project they take on. I would love to see them take on new genres like horror and high fantasy, because if Speed Racer is any indication, they’ll be brilliant at it – even if we don’t realize it at first.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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