September 10, 2008

Written by Cal Kemp

In his book “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, David Foster Wallace has an essay, “E Unibus Plurum: Television and US Fiction” that I find myself returning to time and again. In it, Mr. Wallace decries creative cynicism as something that has become artistically destructive. Postmodernism, he argues was once an act of rebellion against the status quo but has now become the norm and itself offers nothing from which art can grow.

“The next real literary ‘rebels’,” he writes, “…might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.”

This is part of why I think “Speed Racer” isn’t just a great movie; it’s an important one.

There’s a great deal yet to be written about the Wachowskis’ latest creation and I feel that it’s a film that was rather criminally critically maligned upon its release. Seeing it again (my fourth viewing, after three times in the theater) I’m absolutely certain:

“Speed Racer” is a masterpiece and one, I think, that is going to stand the test of time.

Adapting the classic manga and animated series, “Speed Racer” is set in an an extraordinarily bright and fast-moving alternate reality of ninjas, monkeys and racecars. Speed (Emile Hirsch), the middle child of the Racer family, is on the cusp of becoming the greatest racecar driver in the world; a position once held by his older brother, Rex, who — unwilling to sell out to a major corporation — was discredited as a driver and then seemingly perished in a terrible car accident.

Alongside his parents, Pops and Mom Racer (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, respectively) his little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), and his girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), Speed goes toe-to-toe with the head of an evil corporation (Roger Allam) and dozens of dirty-tricks racecar drivers who aren’t going to stop until he’s taken out of the race by any means necessary. Add to the mix the Matthew Fox’s mysterious Racer X — a masked driver aiding Speed for his own mysterious purposes — and you’ve got a film that creates its own amazing world through and through and, while it in and of itself is fantastic popcorn entertainment, it’s such a breath of fresh air, existing in a world completely devoid of cynicism.

I remember grinning at negative reviews earlier this summer that all tended to have some variation on, “Imagine being placed in a blender with a strobe light and millions of brightly colored gumballs bouncing directly into your eye sockets.” Maybe I’m the one off here, but I think that sounds amazing and if a movie can do that on purpose, it’s doing something right.

The technical glory of “Speed Racer” is nothing short of astounding. Your eyes literally have to adjust to a new type of visual storytelling before you can fully immerse yourself in the film. But even beyond that, there are solid performances from a lot of gifted actors and a true and legitimate attempt at telling an all-ages story.

When the Wachowskis created “The Matrix”, the offered up the argument that reality, ultimately, is more important than brilliantly constructed artificiality. “Speed Racer” is a 180 from that idea, giving us a world that’s brilliant in its unreality and reminding us that, sometimes, movies can just be fun. This is an auteur work from two guys that I had written off after the “Matrix” sequels and now I can’t wait to see what they’re going to give us with “Ninja Assassin”.


Sadly, this is not the DVD release that “Speed Racer” deserves and the box-office receipts are, no-doubt, to blame. We’re given two featurettes:

“Sprittle in the Big Leagues” is a kind of stupid but mostly harmless look at the production through the eyes of young actor Paulie Litt. It runs ten minutes or so and doesn’t really tell you much at all. The Wachowskis, naturally, do not appear.

“Speed Racer: Supercharged” is a pretty neat look at all the cars designed for the film. The whole thing sort of takes place within the world of the film and you get a lot of details that never made it into the film or that appeared in tiny background flashes. There’s the history of rival companies including corporate logos and lists of famous racers.

There’s — strangely — a send-away offer for a digital copy of the film. Instead of just including it, you log onto a website and enter a code to have the copy sent to you. While I think Digital Copies are the silliest thing to hit DVD in a long time, I am glad that Warner Bros. isn’t taking the route many other companies are and advertising the copy as part of a “Two-Disc Set”.

That, sadly, is it. I know for a fact there was tons of extra stuff shot but it remains to be seen if it’ll ever see the light of day. Here’s hoping that there’s going to be a much, much more feature-laden multi-disc set in the near future.


I think that time has “Speed Racer”‘s back and that it’s going to find its audience in the years to come. As Wallace puts it:

“The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.

Of over-credulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.”

I’d like to think that that’s what “Speed Racer” is and I’d encourage to curious to not let others’ cynicism stand in the way. This is a big, fun movie built, absolutely, out of the Wachowski’s love for a cartoon series they grew up on. Summer blockbusters don’t get better than this.




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