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Speed Racer Has Low Impact Despite Spectacular Effects

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Sep 19, 2008
<i>Speed Racer</i> Has Low Impact Despite Spectacular Effects

DVD Release Date:  September 16, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  May 9, 2008
Rating:  PG (for sequences of action, some violence and language)
Genre:  Action
Run Time:  129 min.
Director:  Andy and Larry Wachowski
Actors:  Emile Hirsch, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Roger Allam, Christina Ricci, Scott Porter, Paulie Litt, Matthew Fox, Rain, Nicholas Elia

In the opening moments of Speed Racer, the title character—a young student prone to daydreams, who inhabits the dull world of elementary school—sits in a class, filling out the bubbles on a multiple-choice test form with a number two pencil.

It’s standardized-test technology straight out of the 1970s, a drab world that contrasts with the bright colors and computerized graphics that will, within minutes of the opening scene, form the hyper-real world of this hypnotic, candy-colored film.

Directed by the Wachowski brothers—the duo behind the Matrix trilogy—Speed Racer is another visual wonder, but it’s doubtful its impact on future films will come anywhere close to that of the Matrix films. Speed Racer is closer in influence and spirit to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which used a striking visual palette to create a comic-book look but did not have much lasting impact on film culture. Like Dick Tracy, Speed Racer is expensive, mostly family-friendly entertainment, although a few words and violent images could have been left on the cutting-room floor.

The young Speed Racer (Nicholas Elia) lives in the shadow of his older brother Rex (Scott Porter), a race-car driver who earlier perished in a road race after having a falling out with his father, Pops (John Goodman). A smooth businessman, Royalton (Roger Allam), sees potential in Speed (played as an older teen by Emile Hirsch) and offers to bring Speed and his father into the Royalton corporate family, but Pops doesn’t want to sell. We learn that “for Pops, racing is … like a religion, and sponsors are the devil.” But Royalton says money is his religion, and Speed’s refusal to get on board with Royalton’s plan means he must be eliminated.

With their family’s racing business tainted by rumors that Rex had been swayed by a cartel that fixes the outcome of the high-profile races, Speed defies Royalton and sets out to restore pride in his family’s independent racing operation. Royalton tries to prevent Speed from qualifying for a major race, but with the help of fellow racer Taejo Togokhan (Rain) and his friend Trixie (Christina Ricci), Speed finds a way to take on Royalton and restore his family’s tarnished name.

Recounting the plot of Speed Racer does the film no favors. The story might suffice for one of the 30-minute episodes of the animated Speed Racer produced in the 1960s, but stretched into a two-hour-plus feature, it’s both too thin for older viewers and too confusing for the younger viewers who will find the story most compelling.

Nevertheless, the film largely succeeds because of its spectacular visual effects. The Wachowskis have created a kids’ fantasy world where the home-assembled racetracks in boys’ bedrooms become larger-than-life race courses. Cars lose their grip on the track’s hairpin turns—just as they do on toy race tracks—but usually stabilize and keep going. Occasionally a car and driver meet a bad end, but the imagery of crashes and explosions is brief.

What’s most bothersome about Speed Racer is the use of a few four-letter words and an instance where a precocious young boy (Paulie Litt, playing Speed’s younger brother, Spritle) extends his middle finger at a screen villain. This gesture scored a big laugh at an advance screening of Speed Racer, although it’s hard to believe many parents will see the humor in Spritle’s behavior. As for the language, the few expletives come as a surprise because the early part of the film features exclamations such as “cool beans!”—a sign that Speed Racer is aimed at younger viewers and makes no pretense of being for “tweeners” or those who think a live-action/animated hybrid movie is beneath them.

Although the film does not cater to adults, it does contain a few references that older viewers will appreciate. For instance, Royalton tells Speed he remembers working on a Commodore 64 computer in his basement—an amusing comment amongst the wildly inventive, computer-generated vistas of Speed Racer, and one that will go right over the heads of younger children today. The film’s themes of family support and reconciliation between parents and children should be appreciated by grown-ups and younger viewers alike.

The acting is serviceable, even fun in spots. Allam has the most fun as the villain, Royalton, while Hirsch is adequate but perfunctory as Speed. Goodman brings energy to the film, as does Litt, while Susan Sarandon, as Speed’s mother, glows in the early sequences before largely disappearing from the film.

Although the film probably won’t be remembered much beyond this summer, Speed Racer offers a couple hours of razzle-dazzle entertainment. A rarity among big-budget summer films, Speed Racer feels complete (if overlong) by the end of its running time, and doesn’t demand a sequel. How refreshing.

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  • Language/Profanity:  “Da--,” “a--,” “My God,” “hell”; a young boy extends his middle finger at another character.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Some drinking shown at gambling tables; Royalton asks Speed if he wants “bubbly” or rye whiskey.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A kiss and nothing more.
  • Violence:  A child punches another child; a boy drives into the bushes while staring at a girl; a young boy fights with a pet monkey; a racer is struck across the face several times and suspended from a great height; a racer is thrown from his vehicle; flesh-eating fish devour a man’s hand; bad car crashes and explosions; various dirty tricks during the races; martial arts combat; pistol and machine-gun fire; a big brawl.