Monday, 5 January 2009

Speed Racer

Lowdown: Real life Manga.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, Manga has had a significant effect on my childhood. Back when I was single digit old, Star Blazers was all the rage, supplemented by Grantyser or whatever it was actually called. That second case was actually viewed off Jordanian TV with all the bad reception and the Arabic dubbing, but it was still exciting and – more importantly – highly imaginative. It is no wonder I delved heavily into the realm of science fiction since.
There were several other Manga productions I got to watch around that time and slightly later, one of which was Speed Racer (again, off Jordanian TV, and again, Arabic dubbing included). I don’t remember much of it by now, but I do remember liking it. Thus when Speed Racer the movie came along, made by the Wachowski brothers’ powerhouse of Matrix fame, I was highly anticipation to see the result. Later I have learned the movie flopped at the cinemas so the enthusiasm waned, but now – having seen Speed Racer on Blu-ray – all I can say is that Speed Racer is further indication the majority can get things wrong. The reason for that is simple: Speed Racer is an excellent movie!
The story follows the Racer family and in particular their middle son, Speed (indeed, names play a significant role here, in particular with a police character called Inspector Detector – what a lovely name!). Speed grew up in the shadow of his older brother Rex, a spectacular racing driver by his own rights. As a result Speed’s a motorhead to the bone, drinking gasoline for lunch at school etc. However, we quickly learn that as Rex topped the amateur racing classes he disobeyed the family’s father, Pops Racer (the ever so excellent John Goodman). Shortly after leaving the family and severing family connections, Rex dies in a horrific racing accident. Can Speed get up there and succeed where Rex had failed before?
He will give it his best. We follow Speed as he progresses up the racing ladder, high enough to attract the attention of a big racing conglomerate that then want to contract him. The entire family goes to check the proposal’s details out: As befits a family outfit, Speed is accompanied by Pops, Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon), his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), his little brother, and even the family’s chimpanzee. They get an impressive show, but the more they get to the thick of things the more it becomes obvious to Speed that the conglomerate might have the power and the facilities but not the heart. He refuses to sign, acquiring the wrath of the big powers and learning in the process that all the pro races are fixed.
Speed, being Speed and being good, has no choice but to go out and fight the big powers. But can he achieve much by doing the only thing he knows and the only thing he does best – race? And who is this mysterious Racer X that keeps on tailing him?
Overall, Speed Racer’s plot is not something we haven’t seen before: the David against the Goliath type thing. It is, however, very effective: the characters are easy to identify with, there is a lot of thrill in the air, and the film doesn’t take itself too seriously; it always winks back at you.
By far the most dominant feature of Speed Racer the film is its look and feel. The picture is extremely saturated and bright colors are used throughout in a very unrealistic manner. Add futuristic and fantastic settings and you get a very animation like feeling despite the use of real life actors. There is more to it: racing action is extremely hectic, so much so that it is obviously over the top unreal; it makes video games look pale and tranquil. Remember those epilepsy warnings that come with video games? Well, Speed Racer should come with a turbo warning.
The bottom line, though, is that Speed Racer looks more like real life Manga than anything else before it. And that’s where its originality is. As the original Matrix did, to one extent or another, Speed Racer delivers stuff we have never seen on the big screen before. Obviously, no one was as bold and as resourceful as the Wachowskis have been with Speed Racer, and the sad thing is that Speed’s failure at the box office may delay future bouts of originality for coming along.
For now, though, I can only marvel at the thrilling, funny and positively childish adventure the two hours plus of Speed Racer deliver.
Best scene: Speed’s grand prix race at the film’s climax. Given the heavy action taking place in the film’s previous race I was wondering how it can be topped for the climax. But it could: the action starts slowly, quickly gathers pace to the hectic, and then moves to the surreal. Towards the end we can’t really tell what is going on anymore, and the end itself is just a collection of color patterns that seem to have come out of a sixties drugs influenced bonanza. But it works well as the next logical step of the hectic action and it works well in symbolizing Speed’s unconscious synchronization with his racing car. The effect is rather like Evolution 9’s effect at the closing of The Beatles’ White Album: it’s weird, but if you’re in sync with the album it does feel like the next logical step. Well, I was in sync with Speed Racer, that’s for sure.
Picture quality: The picture on this Blu-ray is not the best the format can provide, with some inconsistencies and compression effects that are probably somewhat derived from the original through its overdose of special effects and saturation. Still, given the importance the film’s looks have in the package that is Speed Racer, I wouldn’t want to watch it at home any other way.
Sound quality: Speed Racer’s bane, by far, is its sound. It’s simply falls way too short of what a film like this should deliver, with a mediocre soundtrack that hardly uses the surrounds. The worst thing about it is the Blu-ray coming only with a Dolby Digital DVD grade soundtrack. What a shame!
Overall: Speed Racer brings something new with it to the world of film. What can I say other than 5 out of 5 stars? I say: Go, Speed Racer, go!


Mike said...

THANK YOU. I am so happy that at least one other person on the planet got this film. I liked the weird sight gags like Chim-Chim and Spridle watching cartoons in pajamas: Spridle has little monkey faces on his, Chim-Chim has little boy faces on his. And Matthew Fox? Never better than he is in this movie. I'm convinced that this will be a future classic family's just too far ahead if it's time now.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I'll start by proclaiming my ignorance and say that I've never heard of Matthew Fox before. I do agree with everything else you've said: those small touches you've mentioned demonstrate how brilliant Speed Racer is.
That said, it does seem as if you and I (and my wife) are the only people in this world that watched this film. They have just one copy of it at the rental place we use (compared to a wall of Tropic Thunder), and the only time that one copy was away (as far as I can tell) was when I rented it.