Speed Racer (2008)

2010 #21
The Wachowski Brothers | 135 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

Speed Racer feels like an unfair place to kick off these half-arsed efforts because, despite the critical and commercial apathy it found on release, I really enjoyed it. This close to giving it 5 stars, I was. Still, it’s my oldest unreviewed film (from this year), so…

Firstly, it’s visually astounding. Speed Racer’s blocks of vibrant colour and computer whizzery are a natural fit for the modern digital experience. Action sequences are mind-meltingly fast, but also incredibly thrilling. When CGI is blatantly used in an attempt to fake something real it can leave an action sequence hollow; but here, everything is pushed to the limit — and, probably, beyond — and so it works.

The plot doesn’t have many twists or turns — at least, not any that are genuinely surprising — and yet it rarely feels boring or stale. It’s buoyed by the crazy action sequences, the likeable characters, the unabashed sense of fun that’s poured into every sequence. Little flourishes mark the film out: the Hallelujah moment with the sweets on the plane; Racer X’s delivery of a simple punch amongst a bevy of complex car stunts; numerous others lost to my memory.

Even some of the performances stand out, not something you’d expect from such a (for want of a better word) lightweight tale. Of particular note are Susan Sarandon as Mom and Christina Ricci’s Trixie, whose huge eyes help render her perhaps one of the most perfect live-action versions of an anime character ever seen. Yes, the characters mostly exist to service their place in the plot, but the odd scene or glance or line delivery adds some subtlety here and there.

The mediocre-to-bad reviews Speed Racer received on its initial release seek to chastise you if you happen to like it — look, Ebert’s already informed us why we’re wrong should we even attempt claims of artistic integrity in the Wachowskis’ work. Maybe he’s right — he can list a whole load of commercial tie-ins at the end, after all. Then again, this is the man who gave Phantom Menace half-a-star shy of full marks, a film that was only a little about story and quite a bit about tie-in merchandise if ever there was one (he awarded Revenge of the Sith the same, incidentally, and has included the granddaddy of all film-tie-in-tat, Star Wars itself, in his Great Movies series). And, to specifically rubbish his opinions here, Phantom Menace is praised for being “made to be looked at more than listened to… filled with wonderful visuals” and condemns Speed Racer because “whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization… you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn’t matter.” Not that Film’s unique factor (over novels or radio or what have you) is its visual sense, and a silent film that can be told through image alone, devoid of any intertitles, was once a lofty aim. I’m sure Ebert could readily explain why Phantom Menace’s visual splendour is a good thing and why Speed Racer’s is so terrible, but, on the other hand… pot, meet kettle.

(For a point of clarity, I normally like and agree with Ebert — I’m sure some previous reviews where I’ve cited him will attest to this — which is why I pick on his pair of opinions here rather than those of some lesser critic who can’t be expected to maintain a critical ideology from one film to the next, never mind two that sit almost a decade apart.)

Back to Speed Racer. In every respect it’s like a living cartoon, and it’s the Wachowskis’ commitment to this aesthetic in every single respect that makes it work where others have floundered. It’s not perfect, I suppose. It may run a little long at two-and-a-quarter hours; but then, it so rarely lets up that I didn’t mind a jot. And the kid is often annoying; but then, as annoying little kids in films go, I’ve seen worse. At times I even liked him.

But, all things considered, when the chips are down, with all said and done, and any other clichés you feel like listing for no particular reason, I found this to be a candy-coloured masterpiece.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Speed Racer is on Channel 5 today, Sunday 26th October 2014, at 6:20pm.

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