Speed Racer

Speed Racer

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

One of the most commonly asked questions in Hollywood - and on Geekland message boards - over the last few years was, “What’s going to be the next Wachoswki Brothers film?” It’s a fair bet that not many people’s response would have been, “An upbeat family friendly piece about a racing driver.”

Considering that The Matrix was one long film in three parts, Speed Racer represents only their third writer/director gig since Bound (1996). And yet they seem to have been around a lot longer, creating a signature look that’s proved hugely influential – high-tech visuals, kinetic action and a worldview that’s darker than a very dark thing. For a time it seemed that rarely a week went by without another rain soaked, kick ass headshag ripping them off.

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If you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and, before it disappeared down its own rabbit hole, The Matrix was a breath of fresh air, wonderfully inventive and visually stunning, that payed proper attention to plot and character. Their production values on the equally dark and challenging, if less accomplished, V For Vendetta lent weight to the theory that the next time they took pen and camera in hand it would be more of the same, expect with a little less Sixth Form philosophical gibberish.

Proving once again that no one in Hollywood knows squat, Speed Racer is a very different beast. The plot is easy to follow, the visuals are a riot of primary colours and the message is a simple one of going with your heart and being true to those you love. But there’s still no mistaking it for anything other than a Wachowski Bros movie. It looks fantastic; the technology is cutting edge - live actors against green screen and 360 degree digital image-captured locations; think Dick Tracy, only good - and the action sequences rock.

The hero is Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), a gifted young driver competing in the World Racing League (WRL). In this version of the future, motor racing is the biggest sport on the planet. To nobble the opposition, drivers use an array of gadgets that make the Bondmobile look like a second-hand Cortina and unscrupulous corporations will stop at nothing to gain the coveted world championship (how unrealistic!).

Speed has no truck with any of this, preferring to dedicate himself to the memory of his elder brother Jet Racer, killed in a mysterious crash years ago. He drives fair and remains fiercely loyal to the family team, headed by genius mechanic Pop Racer (John Goodman) and supportive matriarch Mom (Susan Sarandon). Speed is idolised in turn by the youngest of the clan, Spritle, who provides comic relief, along with pet chimp Chim-Chim – early contenders for 2008's Most Irritating Supporting Players Oscar.

Spritle is horrified when Speed is tempted by an offer to race for the Royalton Corporation, headed by Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), an UberBritvillain, with a purple suit and a passion for pancakes. Of course, Speed turns him down and Royalton vows vengeance on the family. But Speed’s also got wind that Royalton is behind a race fixing syndicate and, helped by plucky girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), sets out to unmask the bad guys, win the WRL title and... oh, you know... the usual stuff.

Mike Leigh, it ain’t. Nor Ingmar Bergman. These are two talented narrative/action filmmakers having fun and the movie is best approached in that spirit. It is based on the Sixties Japanese cartoon series Mach Go Go Go, which became hugely popular when dubbed for the US market, and, at its best, plays like a delirious love letter to the spirit of manga/anime, with its dayglo colours, manic action and teenybopper hero.

The race scenes are the chief selling point and, indeed, they are stunning. As the shiny roadsters perform death-defying stunts to get to the chequered flag, I defy the greenest carphobe not to feel their pulse racing.

Unfortunately, there’s one climax too many and the multiple flashback structure makes it hard to work out exactly what the hell’s going on sometimes. Given that it is targeted at a family audience, you might find this, plus the two-hours-and-a-bit running time, puts too much of a strain on the younger nippers’ boredom barrier. Also, I’m doubtful as to how Brit audiences will take the speech bubble dialogue and straight arrow philosophy. This is a world where good triumphs in the end, winning drivers toast their victory in milk and, even when parked in Lovers Lane, never get fresh with their girlfriends.

Mach Go Go Go did not have the same impact on this side of the pond, although we endured Wacky Races, and Allam has truly invoked the spirit of Dick Dastardly in his role as Royalton. For many, he will be the best thing in the film and if someone doesn’t make him the next Bond villain, there is no justice. In fact, the casting as a whole is one of the movie’s strengths. It can’t be easy to make dialogue this corny sound natural.

Speed Racer is a bit like being hit over the head with a brightly coloured lead pipe. The female characters aren’t exactly feminist icons - they have a go at the driving lark in emergencies, but the guys soon take over again - and you’ll certainly wish the kid and the chimp could be locked in a boot for the duration. But it will be a must-see for the Bruvs’ fans and is a classy piece all round. You’ll certainly leave asking yourself what the Wachoswkis might do next but, this time, be a little less confident about your answer.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2008
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Speed Racer packshot
Family values versus corporate dirty tricks in futuristic motor racing spectacular.
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Read more Speed Racer reviews:

George Williamson **

Director: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski

Writer: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, based on the animated series by Tatsuo Yoshida

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Roger Allam, Matthew Fox, Paulie Litt, Nicholas Elia, Ariel Winter, Scott Porter, Kick Gurry, Richard Roundtree, Christian Oliver, Taejo Togokhan, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benno Furmann

Year: 2008

Runtime: 129 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

Festivals:

Tribeca 2008

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