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Review: Speed Racer (2008)

Speed Racer (2008)

Directed by: The Wachowski Brothers

Premise: An adaptation of the Japanese animation series. In a science fiction fantasy world where car racing is an elaborate, multi-million dollar industry, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) emerges as a major talent. When he turns down a contract with a major corporation in favor of staying with his independent family-based team, Speed finds himself defending his family against one of the corporations that controls the races.

What Works: Speed Racer is an exciting film to watch for its insanely busy racing scenes and colorful style. This film brings so-called “MTV editing” to a new level, but rather than flash disposable images at strobe light speed, Speed Racer uses the style to serve the storytelling, especially in the first half, using eloquent transitions to jump all over the timeline and convey large amounts of expository information with complete coherence and great style. The film has an energy to it that starts from the very opening and does not let up until the conclusion. As an adaptation of a Japanese cartoon, Speed Racer translates the style of the cartoon to live action, although like the Star Wars prequels, the film begs the question whether it is a live action film with animated elements or an animated film with live action elements. The distinction may not be all that important, but it does demonstrate the plasticity of contemporary film. Aside from all of the eye candy, the story of Speed Racer has some nice character work between the family members, especially between Speed and his father, played by John Goodman. They have some excellent scenes together and their relationship brings flesh and blood to the computer generated imagery and reality to the fantasy. Also fun to watch is Paulie Litt as Speed’s younger brother. He pairs with the family’s pet monkey to provide comic relief and Litt’s delivery and sense of timing is excellent, especially for such a young actor. Speed Racer is an interesting entry into the Wachowski’s filmography. Their previous work, including Bound, The Matrix trilogy, and V for Vendetta, have generally subverted genre conventions and crammed counter-cultural themes and references into the text. Speed Racer is much more family friendly than any of their previous work but the political subtext remains, although in a more subtle and less confrontational way.

What Doesn’t: In adapting the cartoon to live action, Speed Racer retains some of the physical comedy that is unique to animation. It does not translate well, especially a goofy fight scene between the family and a group of ninjas. Fans of the Wachowski Brother’s other work might find Speed Racer a little hard to swallow. Despite some underlying criticism of corruption and corporate influence on sports and culture, the film follows basic sports genre conventions and does not delve into the kind of subversive territory of V for Vendetta or The Matrix films.

Bottom Line: Speed Racer is a lot of fun and it is mostly a successful translation of the animated series. While it might not have the heavy subtext of the Wachowski’s other work, it does have some compelling themes, well drawn characters, and superior technical craft that make it more than just another racing film.

Episode: #189 (May 11, 2008)