The Wachowskis’ film adaptation of Speed Racer has a rating of 39% on RottenTomatoes, was panned by most critics and was complete box office failure. But how well does this reflect upon the film? It’s campy, over-the-top and incredibly fast-paced, but these aren’t flaws. It’s these very elements that make the film an under-appreciated masterpiece.
“Speed Racer” is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s action-packed and has a surprisingly intense and cohesive plot. Perhaps one of the reasons for its “failure” is the fact that it was released the same week as Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” which snuffed out all competing films. But was “Speed Racer” really as bad as critics said? CBR challenges you to rewatch the film and see why it’s better than you remember!
15. THE CAST IS PERFECT
If there’s truly one thing to love about “Speed Racer,” it’s the cast. There’s Emile Hirsch as Speed, Susan Sarandon as Mom Racer, John freaking Goodman as Pops Racer and Roger Allam as villain Arnold Royalton. How these high-profile actors were cast in an anime adaptation is mind-boggling, but it sure worked out well, the cast put all of their heart into these roles.
Emile Hirsch not only looks exactly like Speed Racer, he prepared for the role by watching every episode of the anime and meeting with professional racers. It shows, too, as Hirsch plays a perfectly humble, sincere and earnest Speed, finding just the right mix of cheesy and inspiring. Susan Sarandon takes her maternal role with stride, a perfect Mom Racer. Roger Allam is wonderfully frightening as the two-faced corporate villain we love to hate. And last but not least, John Goodman plays a role that seems tailor-made just for him. Like Hirsch, Goodman looks exactly like the his anime counterpart, Pops; a jolly, irritable, stern, loving and hard-working father. We dare you to find a John Goodman role that isn’t at least one of those.
Speaking of roles, Trixie is one of the coolest characters in “Speed Racer.” She is Speed’s childhood sweetheart and present day girlfriend. She’s smart, sassy, she fights for what she wants and she’s a genuinely fun character. Even in flashbacks to Speed’s grade school days, Trixie is strong and defiant, protecting Speed from getting made fun of by a group of snobby blonde girls while admiring his differences. She and Speed become fast friends and she is quickly considered family by the rest of the Racers. In the present, Trixie hasn’t lost her strength and defiance.
She not only supports Speed from the air in her wonderfully pink helicopter, she also tends to get her way when it comes to her and Speed’s relationship. Trixie even steps in for Taejo Togokahn in the Casa Cristo Race, holding her own on the track and looking cool in her heavy black eyeliner. In the original anime, Trixie was hard-headed and strong-willed, and the film adapts her perfectly into a fearless feminist badass. She also utters the phrase “cool beans” whenever she sees something awesome, which is just plain delightful.
13. RACER X
Racer X is secretly Rex Racer, Speed’s older brother. In the anime, Rex left his family and donned the Racer X identity after feeling ashamed for racing recklessly and crashing the Mach 5. The film amps up X’s origin a bit, having him fake his death during a race to escape his ties to the mafia. Ashamed, Rex undergoes plastic surgery and dons the Racer X mask.
In both the anime and the film, Racer X attempts to redeem himself by acting as an agent/mercenary for police and government investigations of race fixers. The film’s interpretation of this is beautiful, since it shows X basically being a satirically extreme version of James Bond, shooting guns from his car and taking out an entire truck of mobsters from his steering wheel. He’s a badass trying to do the right thing after doing the wrong thing for so long. We learn as much near the end of the film, where Rex’s tale is recounted, with Matthew Fox portraying heartbreak and doubt with simple, but hard-hitting expressions.
12. THE DESIGNS
So much of “Speed Racer’s” charm, beauty and excellence comes from the design work of the film. Most critics address the visuals as the film’s strongest element, and they’re completely right. The design work on “Speed Racer” evokes the zaniness of the anime, amps it up and gives it just the right dose of reality; all present in the costume, car and world design.
The world of the movie — with its candy-coated cities, massive racing stadiums and cartoonish corporate factories — is just so unrealistic, and that’s what is great about it. The characters stand out from the backgrounds, they look unnatural and fake, which is what works so well; it’s supposed to be unreal and cartoony. The Mach 5 looks like it drove right out of the anime and the other cars in the film are unique and full of flair. The costumes are just as beautiful and give the characters distinct and anime-accurate looks. Speed and his family wear their signature clothes at some point and sport some great original looks throughout the rest of the film. Plus, there’s a ridiculously outfitted team of viking racers. How could you not love that?
11. THE RACING
It’s understandable that a lot of critics called the racing visuals “disorientating” or “overpowering,” since everything about the races is cranked up to 11. Despite being meant to be a spectacle of a film, perhaps the races are too much on the big screen, which might explain why the film gained a cult following from the DVD releases. That being said, the Wachowskis put everything they had into perfecting the racing visuals. The wheels of the cars move 180 degrees, so instead of the film showing a boring NASCAR-like race where cars go around in a circle, the vehicles drift around every corner, revving up to speeds that defy gravity as they flip, spin and swerve around each other.
Each race is unique, and the stakes are continuously raised. The high-octane, crazy car-flipping action just digs deep down to your inner child and makes you want to scream “FASTER! FASTER!” Every racing sequence gives you the child-like feeling of playing with Hot Wheels, running them down tracks and crashing them into each other. The best part of it all is we know exactly what’s happening despite moving a hundred miles a minute. Every motion is crisp, clear and brilliantly choreographed.
10. CASA CRISTO 5000
Perhaps the greatest race of the movie, besides the ending, is the two-day, continent-crossing, climate-clashing Casa Cristo 5000. Speed, Racer X and Taejo Togokahn participate in this race to help Inspector Detector investigate corporate and mafia race fixing, and to help Speed qualify for the Grand Prix. Speed’s family doesn’t want him to compete since the ice caves of Casa Cristo are where Rex spun out and died, but Speed goes against their wishes and enters anyway.
Everything about this part of the film is fantastic. There’s vikings, off-road racing and lots of dirty tricks. The first leg starts in a desert terrain, where dust clouds hide dirty racing attacks and results in a loss for Speed and his teammates. To make matters worse, Taejo was drugged between races. Luckily, Trixie steps in during the second leg and Speed and his team take first place. During their victory, there’s a wonderfully cheesy moment where Speed crosses the finish line, jumps out of his car and lands in his classic anime pose while an instrumental version of the classic theme song plays.
In between the two races of Casa Cristo, Speed and Trixie are found out by his family, who show up to the hotel and stick around for the second leg. While the Racer family, Taejo and Racer X sleep, they are attacked by ninjas. That’s right, ninjas. The ninjas manage to drug Taejo and attempt to take out his teammates to change the results of the race.
Racer X easily takes out his shinobi attackers, using a shirt as a makeshift mask. Speed manages to hold his own, clumsily throwing punches like a street brawler. Pops gets in on the action too, getting a ninja in a headlock where the assassin gets a good look at Pops’ wrestling championship ring. The ninja looks in worry as Pops throws him around, slams him, picks him back up, and spins him over his head — causing his various weapons to fly out and wedge themselves in the walls — before tossing him out the window. Ever the charismatic hardass, Pops brushes off the ninja by saying “Ninja? More like a non-ja. Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.” It’s a completely bonkers scene thats a whole lot of fun to watch.
8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY
The races and and the ninja scene wouldn’t look half as good if it wasn’t for the film’s inventive cinematography. With a live adaptation of an anime, there’s of course going to be some elements lost in translation, but the Wachowskis found an immensely unique middle ground. There are a lot of noticeable elements of this — the quick zooms and pans, the fast switches between the cars and close ups of the racers — but there’s a lot more detail under the surface.
Most of the quick zooms are used to incorporate anime-esque speed lines into the film. When the camera zooms from Speed to his car, the lights of the race-track trail and form motion lines. During the fight scene on the mountaintop, the camera moves with each blow, and the falling snow blurs to become speed lines. Then there are the ice caves at Casa Cristo, where the tail lights the cars trail behind with every drift. This kind of choreography and cinematography predates “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” which used a similar approach. Yet, “Speed Racer’s” innovation and use of the technique went unnoticed.
7. TIME DISPLACEMENT
The film jumps around in time quite a bit, and it’s really a brilliant way to pack all of the main points of the source material into a two hour film. Flashbacks and flash forwards occur on and off throughout “Speed Racer,” but they never feel unnecessary or out of place. Every time the past is mentioned, a character’s head is used to wipe away and a quick flashback occurs, giving us just enough information before returning to the action.
The first race of the film sets up this technique, giving us the backstory of the Racer family and their loss of Rex as Speed races his brother’s ghost. Nearly every family member’s history with Rex is revealed through a closeup followed by a wipe to an emotionally hard-hitting flashback. These flashbacks are used throughout the rest of the film to do things like give backstory, back up a monologue and to give small breaks between the sometimes overwhelming action. The use of flashbacks and flash forwards help make the movie feel light and quick, instead of weighed-down by exposition and backstory.
6. THE ROYALTON SCENE
One of the best uses of time displacement comes when Speed meets with E. P. Arnold Royalton to decline his racing contract offer. What starts as a polite exchange between a humble Speed and the seemingly friendly Royalton turns into the most powerful scene in the entire movie. Speed’s decline incorporated flashbacks to back up his explanation for turning the offer down, depicting Speed and Pops learning to move past Rex’s death and showing how important his family is to him and his racing career.
Royalton replies by going on a very poignant rant about how Speed’s obsession with family values is pointless, and that money is the only thing that matters in racing. Royalton enforces this by claiming that unless Speed signs with Royalton, he will not only fail to place in the upcoming Fuji race, he won’t even finish. During the monologue, all of Royalton’s claims come to life as the Fuji race occurs in the background, showing the Mach 5 getting knocked out of the race, and Racer Motors’ name being dragged through the mud. It’s a powerful scene that both shows off Roger Allam’s amazing acting skills, and gives Speed reason to doubt everything he knows.
5. THE VILLAIN IS CAPITALISM
The Royalton scene helps reveal that the villain of Speed Racer isn’t a rival driver, it’s capitalism. Sure, Speed faces off against other racers, like anime villain Snake Oiler, the Grey Ghost and, in the final race, Jack “Cannonball” Taylor, but the one pulling the strings behind each of Speed’s losses and trials is Royalton Motors and their connection with the mafia. The film depicts big-money racing to be corrupt, underhanded and just plain dirty, using things like the illegal spear hook to cheat during races.
The reason that setting up capitalism as the villain of “Speed Racer” works so well is because the film focuses on Speed and his relationship to his family, especially Rex and Pops. Family values and hard work stand at the core of this film, supporting the Racers as they go up agains big-name racing companies. “Speed Racer” is a classic underdog sports narrative with some other fun elements thrown in.
4. THE EMOTION IS REAL
There’s no doubting that “Speed Racer” is a campy movie, but that’s what gives the film so much heart. The film hits a lot of emotional beats, each evoking very real reactions. The fun, crazy, downright silly action keeps you on the edge of your seat, while the family moments have you tensed up and on the verge of tears.
A lot of the emotion of “Speed Racer” comes from the Racer family, and the cast’s performances of them. During the first race, Rex’s death feels real; we see flashbacks that show how important Rex was to Speed, and how close he and Pops were. We see how Rex’s death hit Speed when he cries in his mother’s arms as she looks on with the blank expression of a grieving mother. We really feel Rex’s death because their reactions are so raw and real without overdoing it. With every emotional moment, we are presented with a situation or a flashback that gives us context that helps fuel our reactions. It makes us feel like we’re part of it, which is why the emotion hits so hard.
3. NOT A GRITTY REBOOT
“Speed Racer” was released a few years after Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and just a few months before “The Dark Knight.” Suffice it to say, gritty reboots were starting to get more popular. Perhaps the state of the market at the time of its release is what lead “Speed Racer” to bomb at the box office. Even “Iron Man,” which isn’t exactly a gritty reboot, had a lot of themes and story elements that were darker than the comic source materials. Any way you look at it, the market around the time of its release just wasn’t suited for “Speed Racer.”
This is because “Speed Racer” didn’t force a gritty take. It’s not “a Speed Racer movie, but…” it’s just a Speed Racer movie, and that’s what makes it great. From “Batman Begins” on, every comic book movie had to throw something else into the mix to keep things from being too campy and fun, two things that producers thought audiences didn’t want. “Speed Racer” is a true adaptation of the anime; it’s fun, silly, colorful and not afraid to get cheesy. Some might fault the film for not taking itself too seriously, but honestly, that’s what makes it work so well.
2. THE PLOT IS SIMPLE (AND GREAT)
The basic plot of the film is that Speed’s racing skill gains the attention of a potential sponsor from Royalton Motors. Speed turns down the offer and Royalton uses his connections in an attempt to end Speed’s racing career… and it almost works. Speed gets a second chance when Inspector Detector and Racer X offer him a chance to race while exposing corruption within racing. The stakes get higher and higher as the final race approaches and Speed has the chance to end Royalton’s reign and prove to the world that he doesn’t need money or power to win, all he needs is family and a love of racing.
A lot of critics claimed that while the visuals of “Speed Racer” were strong, the plot was incoherent and messy. But from a writing perceptive, there just needs to be a reason for Speed to race, right? Well, the Wachowskis did that, using a sports film narrative as the base and building on top of it. The themes are focused, we never get confused by whats going on, and Speed has a reason to race. There’s not much more that the plot needs, and it leaves plenty of room for the amazing races.
1. A CHILDLIKE SENSE OF WONDER
“Speed Racer” opens with a young Speed taking a test in school. He’s having a lot of trouble concentrating and his mind starts to wander. What starts as a flip book doodle of a racing crash quickly evolves into a fantasy sequence in which childish doodles of cars and crowds surround Speed, his school desk acting as his drivers seat. Speed makes “vroom” noises as he races, and even simulates a crowd’s roar after he crosses the fantasy finish line. This scene is pure, and it depicts the the film for what it is: a kid’s fantasy.
Everything from young Speed’s fantasy to the racing visuals, and even Spritle’s manic shenanigans, make this film a great peak into the head of a kid. The film apparently did very well with the child demographic, as it should since”Speed Racer” is basically everything great about a kid’s fantasy with speed. This is the true magic of the movie, as it evokes such child-like wonder that it makes you feel like a kid again! When you watch it with this mindset, “Speed Racer” is a truly wonderful film.
What did you think about Speed Racer? Would you give it another go today? Let us know in the comments!