Speed Racer

Movie Information

The Story: Speed Racer goes after the corporate villains behind the supposed death of his brother. The Lowdown: A wild, often incoherent bout of extreme sensory overload that's fascinating without ever being quite good in the normal sense.
Genre: Action-Adventure
Director: Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox
Rated: PG

Complaining that the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer is too noisy, too busy, too colorful and too over-the-top is a lot like visiting the Grand Canyon and complaining that it’s too big, or tackling a Wagner opera and kvetching that it’s too long and too bombastic. In other words, what did you expect? The Wachowskis aren’t exactly known for their subtlety, so it oughtn’t be a big shock to find out that their film version of a frankly lousy cartoon isn’t Ingmar Bergman.

It’s not a good movie. But I would call it a fascinating failure—and add that it’s at least 30 minutes too long for its own good. The running time listed is either 129 or 135 minutes, depending on the source. I didn’t time it, and was fairly quickly driven from the theater by the remonkeyed hip-hop-techno-rave-J-rock-dance-remix version of the cartoon’s theme song over the end credits. And there are parts of the movie that I actively hated. (My tolerance for precocious kids with “cute” feces-flinging-chimpanzee sidekicks is sadly limited. Doubtless, this is a personal flaw I should work on correcting.) But all in all, I can’t quite climb on the anti-Speed Racer bandwagon, because the film is just too interesting to simply dismiss.

For my money, the Wachowski’s peaked with their debut film, Bound (1996). It has all the flash and zip of their subsequent work, but it also has a clever story and the chemistry of Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon going for it. And it strictly tries to impress the viewer with its cleverness. It isn’t peddling a load of clams pretending to be profound, which is exactly what happens with The Matrix (1999) and its wafer-thin philosophy. That it was a load of clams was ably demonstrated when the Wachowskis tried to expand and explain with the two Matrix sequel films, the obvious shallowness of which earned them the kind of enmity one usually encounters when people feel they’ve been personally betrayed or made a fool of.

Despite having a family-loyalty underpinning with all the attendant good intentions that implies (kids’ movies without this are the rare ones) and an anti-big-business mind-set, Speed Racer doesn’t even pretend to have any depth. It barely pretends to have a story of any note, even though it actually has several intersecting story lines. It’s pure style—relentless, overpowering style. That it’s ultimately also overkill is an admittedly pretty big downside, but I’m not at all certain that sensory overload isn’t the point. It’s certainly what you get, and in more ways than just the fact that very little of what you see besides the actors is real.

The story lines are a convoluted excuse for wallowing in the film’s hallucinatory Day-Glo stylistic excesses and structural aberrations. All it really comes down to is the story of a kid named Speed Racer (Nicholas Eliah, War) who thinks about nothing other than racing cars (with that name, why is anyone surprised?) and idolizing his race-car-driving brother, Rex (Scott Porter, Prom Night). Speed grows up and becomes the racer of his dreams (and turns into Emile Hirsch in the bargain). Rex is supposedly killed in a race—thanks to the forces of evil big business—and Speed has a chance to pay them back etc., etc. Further convolutions about business dealings hardly matter, and there are aspects of the film I’d just as soon not explore too deeply—like why Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), bears a striking resemblance to Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon). (Hello, Oedipus!)

Apart from the constant stylization, the film’s structure is unusual to say the least. Past and present collide so often that the movie threatens to become nonlinear. Memories appear in the middle of present-tense action—usually just floating in on the endlessly shifting backgrounds. If you thought the unstable and vertiginous backgrounds in Marc Forster’s Stay (2005) were disorienting, these go way beyond that. Conversations play with talking heads changing positions as the camera glides across the screen. Nothing in the film has any normal sense of stability—a feeling that actually grows over the course of its length—until the final race, the conclusion of which is a completely abstract burst of colors and motion. At that moment, the Wachowski’s stand revealed—for better or worse—as having made something like a $100 million experimental movie.

The big question is will you care about any of this, or will it all just give you a headache? I think the former is unlikely and the latter quite possible—unless you’re an 8-year-old boy. In that case, based on the exit chatter I heard, you may well sum it all up with, “That was awesome!” If you’re any older, however, I’d only recommend it as a possibly traumatizing excursion into hallucinatory visuals. What I personally find a little alarming is that the film exists in my memory as an animated movie, despite its all-human (and chimp) cast. Have I suffered permanent damage? Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence, language and brief smoking.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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22 thoughts on “Speed Racer

  1. Franzeska

    I don’t think it’s just little boys. I think anyone who uses the word ‘awesome’ unironically would love Speed Racer. I’ve seen it twice already. A lot of reviewers have been complaining that it’s just like a video game. Yes, of course it is, but not the kind they’re thinking of: It’s like one of those games with the fabulous celebrity voice actor cut scenes and an interesting backstory wound through the puzzles and action. You make it through a difficult bit of game and you get rewarded with another piece of the story.

    I didn’t even notice it was nonlinear the first time I saw it. The weird flashback style just seemed natural to me. The beginning has flashbacks to his childhood that set up the story. The ending race has cheesy voiceovers from the rest of the movie. The bit with Racer X right at the end has the requisite plot twist flashback that sets up potential sequels and ties up loose ends. In my video game-addicted, anime-obsessed brain, that IS the new “linear”.

  2. Jon

    Finally a fair review! 3 1/2 is about what I would expect for this movie, since not everything works, but it is certainly entertaining and unique.

    I find your comment about Christina Ricci and Susan Sarandon a bit odd though… I’ve never noticed this and never heard this commented before.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Well, non-linear isn’t exactly new. It’s certainly been around in avant garde film for a very long time, and it’s inherent in any film using a flashback technique. That idea probably originates with the mystery film and the detective showing you how the crime was done. It forms the basis for Wm. K. Howard’s The Power and the Glory (1933) and, more famously and elaborately, Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). It can be taken to some pretty extreme limits, too. Look at Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974) which mixes a framing story, flashbacks and fantasy — at one point, there’s even a flashback inside another flashback. Of course, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994)seriously popularized the idea of a fragmented narrative — even if I’ve never quite bought the idea that it was anything other than a clever gimmick.

    There’s also a history of time shifts in literature. The English author J.B. Priestley (who was personally obsessed with time as a concept) played with the idea throughout his writing career, probably achieving something like perfection in his novel Bright Day and addressing the concept directly in The Magicians.

    What Speed Racer does differs slightly by blending its times into something that at least feels like a seamless creation, moving in and out of the time frame within a single frame of film. It’s one of the many things I admired about the movie. Unfortunately, none of it seems to have gone down very well with the public at large and Speed Racer looks well on its way to becoming a box office disaster along the lines of Exorcist II: The Heretic, Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I find your comment about Christina Ricci and Susan Sarandon a bit odd though… I’ve never noticed this and never heard this commented before.

    I don’t think I’m the only reviewer that noticed it here, but it’s not something I had ever noticed prior to this film.

  5. Galen Slayton

    Some of your review made it sound like you were incapable (or unwilling) to follow the action.

    The kind of people who like this blistering action are the same type of people who tend to daydream on into their 30’s. (i’m 25 but I’m sure I’ll still be there) We like kung-fu movies where 20 moves are done in one take, and the actors dont have to slow down for the average movie-goer. We like fighting games that rely on twitch reactions, where every tenth of a second counts.

    The crazier the action and the visuals get the better, as long as there is some form of grounding in physics, lol.

    This movie was amazing, in my book. The visuals and thrills are unprecedented. Although, with how bad your review sounded I was expecting a lower rating.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Some of your review made it sound like you were incapable (or unwilling) to follow the action.

    No, I could follow the action — at least to the point where the film rather bravely opted to take off fully into the realm of abstraction. At the same time, I freely admit to not being a gamer and of not liking gaming, especially things that rely of “twitch reactions,” for the simple fact that they make me nervous. I don’t find that a pleasurable experience.

    Although, with how bad your review sounded I was expecting a lower rating.

    That’s far from a bad review — go look up some others if you want to see bad reviews. All in all, I liked the movie more than I didn’t and I’ll see it again at some point. I probably won’t see Iron Man again, even though I gave it a higher rating, because it’s more successful at what it does. But what it does ultimately only entertains me, it doesn’t particularly interest me. Speed Racer interests me, but all that precocious little brother and chimpanzee stuff — and the simple fact that it just didn’t need to be that long — weighs against it.

    I am truly sorry that the film is a box office disaster (there’s really no other word for it) because I’d have liked to see some of the things it does taken to new levels and assimilated into the moviemaking lexicon, but that’s unlikely now.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Thanks. I’ve subsequently had several other peculiar subtext aspects of the film pointed out to me by others, but I need to see the film again to decide whether I think they’ve any validity.

  8. Ken Hanke

    There’s apparently — in some readings — a homoerotic vibe that I’m not quite getting. I can’t say I’d be surprised by them, but they didn’t register with me.

  9. Franzeska

    Personally, the movie struck me as rather shockingly un-homoerotic considering the subject matter, but I’ve seen those comments too.

  10. ephrem

    This is an excellent review. I will probably never see this movie. I hope not. But the review itself here is a masterful use of the English language, informative, finding the good and the bad, and amazingly knowledgeable of the Art of Cinema.

    Kudos to you Mr. Hanke.

  11. Metzgo

    I saw this with my 5 year old nephew. He didn’t seem interested at all really. Yet he wants all the novelty he can get his hands on. Our local Movie Critic was in the theater. He left early. I on the other hand agree with Ken Hanke, I could barely watch the kid and monkey scenes, I felt as if by watching I was giving up, but in at the End, I totally fell for the finale, the colors, the flashes, the heart pounds if its going as fast as you are watching. I am ashamed.

  12. Andrew

    Your review hits the mark. I think the film is a failure but an interesting one. and I’d like to see it again as well, if it weren’t for the fact that it is way too long, punctuated by tortuously talky and convoluted story bits. The ‘unstable and vertiginous backgrounds,’ in particular, fascinated me more than anything else, reminding me in a weird way of Lars Von Trier’s ‘Zentropa’…which did make me feel as if I were watching a $100 million experimental movie striving to break out of its redundant commercial package.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I’d like to see it again as well, if it weren’t for the fact that it is way too long

    I’m more stymied personally by the prospect of merely finding the time to see it again! But I really want to, because, let’s face it, there’s no way this is going to have anything like the same impact on a TV — no matter how jazzy your home theater is.

  14. Just got back from it. Wow.

    The Wachowski Brothers made the first big film of the dvd era with THE MATRIX. They capitalized on the strengths of the dvd and it was the movie that many people bought a player for.

    I think that the Wachowski Brothers made the first big film for the hi-def era. I can’t wait to see it again on blu-ray. Once again, Ken is spot on. It’s a mess, but the most entertaining mess that I’ve seen in awhile.


  15. Ken Hanke

    It’s a mess, but the most entertaining mess that I’ve seen in awhile.

    And sometimes that’s better than an outright success.

  16. “And sometimes that’s better than an outright success.”

    Absolutely. They went for it, and failed, but they went for it. Give them credit for that.

  17. Ken Hanke

    Absolutely. They went for it, and failed, but they went for it. Give them credit for that.

    And I wouldn’t even say they failed completely — except at the box office. Sure, Iron Man is a better picture overall, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to see it again. I do want to see Speed Racer again.

  18. “And I wouldn’t even say they failed completely—except at the box office. Sure, Iron Man is a better picture overall, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to see it again. I do want to see Speed Racer again.”

    Are you holding?

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