Speed Racer - 2008
Director(s): Lana and Lilly Wachowski (The Wachowskis)
Writer(s): Lana and Lilly Wachowski (screenplay) / Tatsuo Yoshida (animated series)
Cinematography by: David Tattersall
Editor(s): Roger Barton and Zach Staenberg
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Christina Ricci and Matthew Fox
Synopsis: A young driver, Speed Racer, aspires to be champion of the racing world with the help of his family and his high-tech Mach 5 automobile (IMDB).
The Wachowskis had a lot of commercial success are writer/directors in the early 2000s, bringing in around $1.6 billion dollars worldwide with The Matrix trilogy. Naturally, Warner Brothers tapped them to do a project that had been in developmental hell since 1992: the live action adaptation of one of the most successful anime series of all time, Speed Racer. The Wachowskis agreed to spearhead this project since they wanted to reach a bigger audience and wanted to make a family friendly film they could sit and watch with their nephews. Ironically, despite them wanting a bigger audience the movie was a box office “dud”, making around $93 million on a $120 million production budget. But now, ten years after its release it has gained a sizable cult following thanks to the creative visuals and unapologetic cartoon tone. And with that set up to justify my “review”, let us get to said “review”.
The Wachowskis and cinematographer David Tattersall created a vibrant and hyper-realistic world that comes close to fully recreating the anime world that inspired the movie. Hollywood at the time was focused on adapting IPs as gritty and realistic as possible, with The Dark Knight being the crown jewel of this movement. Speed Racer was a breath of fresh, colorful air in a marketplace that thought every action sequence should be set in the darkest corner of the world. There are numerous races so colorful they make Andy Warhol look like Francisco Goya. Boom, “artsy” joke/reference. My favorite sequence was when Racer X, played by Matthew Fox, is trying to save Taejo, played by Rain, from the mob. It has a color scheme of black, pink and dark blue that just stands out from the rest of the sequences.
This was achieved with the use of green screens for the majority of the scenes. While it helps with the visuals (some have aged better than others), it put the actors in a tough position. They essentially have nothing but their imagination and the word of their directors to bounce the acting off. Some scenes play out better that others, but for the most part the acting is stiff and the line delivery feels forced. The most egregious are almost all the scenes from the kid brother and Chim Chim, the pert chimp. The green screen is painfully obvious and the acting is just flat out bad. When you slice in his scenes between some great action set pieces you are pulled away from fully submerging yourself in this vastly colorful world.
Not all the acting is horrible, as some of the actors fully embraced their characters and ate up the scenery. Roger Allam as Royalton fully shines in his role as the corporate villain trying to seduce Speed over to the dark side. He knew exactly the type of movie he was in and he loved every second. He was in charge of delivering multiple menacing monologues and starring at the camera in such an entertaining and over the top way that he perfectly fits the world he inhabitants. The rest of the cast is solid in their roles as it has a great cast.
Speed Racer is a victim of the market it was released in. With an audience programed to expect an IP to be grounded and realistic, The Wachowskis attempt to have a live action cartoon fell short. They deliver an original over the top visual experience that pays homage to the original source material while standing on its own two feet. This movie is not for everyone and you only need to watch the trailer to know if it suits your personal tastes, but I’m dumbfounded that this movie was dragged through the mud by the critics and the fans at the time. Yes, the acting at times is spotty and yes, the story is as unoriginal as your local cover band that plays the same songs at the bowling alley every Tuesday. But, the visuals, the ambition and the creativity more than makes up for it, delivering a truly fun movie. I’m happy it has found a cult following years after its release and its receiving the recognition it deserves. The Wachowskis are why I love movies.
Speed Racer is currently playing on Netflix. Watch it, if you want.
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