Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Speed Racer

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/21/09.

The 1960s anime cartoon Speed Racer about a young racer who races against the odds under the support of his family and a mysterious driver is among one of the popular cartoons of its time. Though it only lasted an entire season in the U.S., it remains a cult favorite as it was seen through re-runs over the years. In 2008, a film version was finally released after years of troubled development until it came into the hands of producer Joel Silver and the Wachowski Brothers, the team who had gained massive success with the Matrix film franchise.

Directed and written for the screen by Larry & Andy Wachowski, Speed Racer tells the story of a young, talented race car driver who is set to become the greatest racer of his generation. When a corrupt, corporate wants to offer the young man a chance to become the best, the young racer learns some horrible truths about the world of racing as he teams up with a mysterious racer to stop corruption through what they know best. A part action film with elements of comedy and themes about family. The film is a hyperactive yet colorful take on the famed anime cartoon as the Wachowski Brothers create a film that is accessible yet entertaining. With an all-star cast that includes Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Roger Allam, Matthew Fox, Paulie Litt, Kick Gurry, Scott Porter, Rain, Benno Furmann, Yu Nan, and Richard Roundtree. Speed Racer is a fun, exciting film that has enough action and humor for audience of all ages to enjoy.

Set to race against all the odds on a race, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is out-racing his competitors as his family watch. Among them is his father Pops Racer (John Goodman) who heads the independent Racer Motors that Speed faithfully works for. Also watching are his mother (Susan Sarandon), little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), their pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim, mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), and Speed's girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci). Speed wins though misses the record by a split second because the record belongs to his late older brother Rex (Scott Porter) who was killed in the treacherous Casa Cristo race. The death of Rex was hard on the family as he was considered a promising racer until he left Racer Motors to work for a corporation where he played dirty and lost a lot of respect until his death.

Meanwhile, E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) arrives to the home of the Racer family to offer Speed a lucrative deal as he invites the entire Racer family to his headquarters where they meet the legendary Cannonball Taylor (Ralph Henforth). Though the offer Royalton is tempting, Speed isn't sure while something else is going on as a mob boss named Cruncher Block (John Benfield) is beating a young racer named Taejo Togokahn (Rain) to lose more races as he was saved by the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox). Speed goes to Royalton to reveal his decision while telling the story about Rex's death as well as what got Pops Racer back into racing over a legendary Grand Prix race. Royalton then reveals something horrifying about the Grand Prix race that Ben Burns (Richard Roundtree) won was all fixed for corporate gain. Spritle, who sneaked in on that meeting with Chim-Chim learns about a new prototype that Royalton is creating.

After turning down Royalton in which, he loses a prestigious race that has the Racer family in trouble. An inspector (Benno Furmann) arrives with Racer X at the Racer house to reveal some news over what happened at the last race along with an offer to stop Royalton with help from Taejo Togokahn who claims to have evidence linking Royalton to Blocker. The problem is that the race is at the treacherous Casa Cristo as Pops refuses to have Speed involved. Speed and Trixie secretly decides to help Racer X and Togokahn as part of a team to defeat dirty racers that includes Snake Oiler (Christian Oliver). Though Speed did great on his own, the first half was won by Snake Oiler making Togokahn upset while the Racer family finds out that Speed is racing the Casa Cristo as Pops reluctantly helps Speed. Along with help from Taejo's sister Horuko (Yu Nan), Speed and his team with Togokahn being the ultimate winner as he gains an invitation to the Grand Prix.

Unfortunately, things doesn't go well at all for Speed as Racer X, who is believed to be Rex, reveals his identity as they're both upset over what Taejo has decided to do in order for his family to gain profit for their own stock. Horuko however, decides to give the Grand Prix invitation to Speed as a lesson to her family where Speed would show racers all over the world what he can do with some surprising help.

The approach that the Wachowskis go for with this film is to simply make a family film. While it's a change of pace from their darker, more violent films. The unique visual style that the Wachowski are known for is there. At the same time, their script which is filled with lots of back story on characters and the world of corporations do work for the most part though the latter story about corporations and stock market does get confusing for some audiences, particularly children. Yet, the heart of the film is Speed Racer and his relationship with his family. Even as Speed is tempted to get things any young racer would want as long as his family is involved. Yet, when he turns down Royalton's offer just out of loyalty to his own family. He realizes what he must do to protect them and also why his brother left Racer Motors in the first place.

While the story does faithfully tell the folklore of Speed and Racer X, the Wachowski does create some interesting storylines about that relationship along with Racer X's secret identity. The direction of the film is very stylized. It's fast, hyperactive, and very colorful all in the anime style. While some audiences might have a hard time keeping up with what's going. The Wachowskis do at least, slow things down so that audiences can get a chance to know the characters and the situation around them. The race sequences are definitely intense along with some humorous sequences that is very appealing to kids which works well with their hyperactive energy. Despite a few flaws in the story and in the direction, the Wachowskis do create a film that is definitely fun to watch.

Cinematographer David Tattersall does some nice work with the film's high-octane look with loads of swirling colors and lighting styles to convey the mood of the race and tone of the film. Editors Roger Barton and Zach Staenberg do excellent work with the film's highly-stylized editing with the use of transition wipes in using characters and object to move from one scene to another along with fast-paced cuts for the film's hyperactive race scenes. Even the use of freeze frames for some of the film's energetic, anime-style sequences. Production designer Owen Paterson along with set decorator Peter Walope and supervising art director Hugh Bateup do some fantastic work with the look and design of the race tracks and Royalton's building. Costume designer Kym Barrett does very good work with the look of Speed's clothes that is reminiscent of the cartoon along with the lavish look of Royalton and other racers as it's faithful to the look of the cartoon.

The visual effects work by supervisor Chadi Abo, John Gaeta, Dan Glass, Kim Libreri, and Kevin Scott Mack is truly phenomenal in its hyperactive, colorful look. While it might seem excessive, it works to convey the energy and feel of the film in terms of its attempts to make it as close as the cartoon. The visual effects work does succeed, notably a comical scene involving Spritle, Chim-Chim, and a ninja. Sound designer Dane A. Davis does some excellent work in the sound work of tire squeals, engine growls, and other things that goes on during the race. Music composer Michael Giacchino brings a playful, broad score to the film that plays up to its humor and bombastic racing scenes with huge orchestral arrangements as it's an excellent score piece from Giacchino.

The casting by Lora Kennedy and Lucinda Syson is brilliant with some memorable small roles from Nicholas Elias as a young Speed, Ariel Winter as a young Trixie, original Speed Racer voice actor Peter Hernandez as a local race announcer, Nayo Wallace as Racer X's girlfriend Minx, Ralph Henforth as Cannonball Taylor, Cosma Shiva Hagen as Royalton's assistant Gennie, German punk vocalist Jana Pallaske as a dirty racer at Casa Cristo, Togo Igawa as Mr. Togokahn, and Ben Miles as a Grand Prix commentator. Other small roles from more well-known actors as Melvil Poupaud as a Casa Cristo announcer, Hiroyuki Sanada as a business rival of Royalton, and Richard Roundtree as Ben Burns are great in their brief but memorable apperances.

Christian Oliver is funny as dirty racer Snake Oiler while John Benfield is very good as the thuggish Crunch Blocker. Scott Porter is pretty good in his brief role as Rex Racer while Korean pop vocalist Rain is also good as Taejo Togokahn with Yu Nan in a fine role as his good-natured sister Horuko. Kick Gurry is funny as Speed's mechanic Sparky who can't fight to save his life while Paulie Litt is fantastic as Spritle, the kid who loves candy and be with his pet chimp Chim-Chim, who rules. Benno Furmann is fine in a small role as the Inspector Detective who helps the Racer family find ways to fight corruption. In a very understated but light-humorous performance, Matthew Fox is excellent as the mysterious Racer X who helps Speed fight corruption while giving him some advice about doing the right thing.

Roger Allam is great as Royalton, the corporate honcho who will do what it takes to make more money and make Speed's life a living hell as Allam definitely hams it up and gives a glorious performance. Susan Sarandon is really good in a small yet understated role as Mom Racer who ground Speed while providing the warmth and calmness the family needed. John Goodman is fantastic as Pops Racer, a man who is all about the love of racing and a distaste for corporations while showing that he isn't naive as Speed thinks he is while can easily beat up a ninja. Christina Ricci is really good as Trixie, Speed's girlfriend who definitely can help Speed think things clearly while showing that she can be more than helpful on the race tracks as she even says the character's trademark line, cool beans. Emile Hirsch is brilliant as the title character in displaying a young man driven to win but also confused by the myths of races as Hirsch definitely carries the film with a coolness and complexity as it's definitely a worthy follow-up to his brilliant role in Sean Penn's Into the Wild a year earlier.

While it's not a perfect film, Speed Racer is a good, fun, entertaining film from the Wachowski Brothers that is a definite improvement over the let-downs that were the Matrix sequels. While fans of the original cartoon might have issues with its hyperactive look and tone, it is a film that is faithful while adding a nice spin to the cartoon. While it didn't do well in the box office when it came out in May 2008 largely due to some bad trailers. It's a film that needs to be seen since it is funny, it's got lots of action, and a strong theme about family. In the end, Speed Racer is a film that is worth anyone's time except for those cootie-sensitive viewers.

Wachowski Brothers Reviews: (Bound) - (The Matrix) - (The Matrix: Reloaded) - (The Matrix Revolutions) - Cloud Atlas

(C) thevoid99 2011

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