"SPEED RACER" (2008) Review
When I first saw the trailer for "SPEED RACER" . . . I had simply cringed in my seat. Granted, I had been a fan of the Japanese cartoon when I was a kid. But looking at that trailer, my mind simply cried, "Hell no!" There was no way in the world I was going to see this movie.
But the more I saw the trailer, old memories of the cartoon kept welling in my thoughts. Soon, I found myself filled with nostalgia for the cartoon. I eventually decided to go see the movie after all. It might turn out to be a pile of crap, but I had to exorcise the ghosts of my childhood. Well . . . I went ahead and saw the movie. And I must say that it turned out to be a hell of a lot better than I had expected.
At a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, "SPEED RACER" is about a young 18 year-old American (Emile Hirsch) with natural racing instincts. His goal is to become a world-class car racer, in the wake of the tragic death of his older brother, Rex Racer (Scott Porter) during the Casa Cristo, a cross-country rally. Speed is loyal to the family business, run by his parents Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon). Pops designed Speed's car, the Mach 5. The owner of Royalton Industries (Roger Allam) makes Speed a lucrative offer to join the company's racing team, but Speed rejects the offer, angering the owner. Speed also uncovers a secret that top corporate interests, including Royalton, are fixing races and cheating to gain profit. After Speed denies his offer to join his racing conglomerate, Royalton wants to ensure that Speed will not win any future races. Speed finds support from his parents and his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and enters the Casa Cristo Rally in a partnership with his one-time rival, Racer X (Matthew Fox), in an effort to rescue his family's business and the racing sport itself.
I must admit that when I first saw this movie, the first ten minutes had left me puzzled. Although I enjoyed how the story introduced Speed Racer's obssession with racing and the death of his older brother, Rex Racer; I must admit that I had been taken aback by the movie's visuals. It looked very cartoonish and I have not seen such bold colors since Warren Beatty's 1990 film, "DICK TRACY". But my mind adjusted to this new visual style and proceeded to enjoy the rest of the story. In fact, by the time the movie focused upon The Casa Cristo cross-country race, I found myself marveling over John Gaeta's visual effects and David Tattersall's photography. Quite frankly, I also ended up enjoying Larry and Andy Wachowski's screenplay. "SPEED RACER" must be one of the few movies based upon a cartoon that possessed a strong social message - namely one against corporations' involvment in the sport. And I found it pleasantly surprising.
As for the cast, Emile Hirsch struck me as a little flat at first. But in the scene in which Speed rejected Royalton's offer, Hirsch's Speed Racer finally bloomed into life. Christina Ricci gave a fun and charming performance as Trixie, Speed's girlfriend. Both John Goodman and Susan Sarandon were excellent as Speed's parents. Both were given the opportunities to strut their acting skills in private scenes with Hirsch's Speed. And I do not think that Matthew Fox had never been as sexy and enigmatic as he was as Racer X - Speed's rival and ally in the fight against Royalton. The movie also featured a scene in which both he and Emile Hirsch gave a superb performances in an intense conversation about car racing between the two characters. I especially enjoyed his fight with a ninja assassin. Richard Roundtree gave a surprisingly sly and funny performance as Ben Burns, a former racer who became a commentator. To my surprise, Roger Allam's slightly bombastic performance as the corrupt Royalton did not bother me at all. In fact, his character's over-the-top personality seemed perfect for the movie. The biggest surprise turned out to be Paulie Litt as Spritle, the youngest Racer sibling. Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Regis Philbin once described the young television actor as a 40 year-old in a child's body. Perhaps he is right. But young Paulie was a bundle of energy with great comic timing.
"SPEED RACER" did possess a few imperfections. Either the movie is fifteen minutes too long or its pacing managed to drop off a bit, following the Casa Cristo race sequence. And I was a little annoyed with the Wachowskis' interruption of the fascinating sequence between Speed and Royalton's discussion about the racing scene with comic moments featuring Spritle and his pet monkey, Chin Chin, trying to break into the businessman's candy storage. It just seemed out of place and it nearly ruined the marvelous scene between Speed and Royalton.
Many film critics had disliked the film. I suspect that "SPEED RACER"'s unusual visual style may have been a little too mind blowing for them. Unfortunately, a good number of moviegoers ended up paying attention to those critics. Which is a shame, in my opinion. I feel that "SPEED RACER" is one of the most entertaining films I have seen in 2008 . . . hell, in the past decade; and one of the most unusual I have seen in a long time. And it was a shame when it bombed at the box office. There is an ironic post-script to the movie. When it was first released on DVD, those moviegoers who did not bother to go see it at the theaters, expressed surprised at how much they enjoyed it. I could have told them how enjoyable it was when it first hit the theaters back in May 2008.