Saturday, May 10, 2008

From the Archive: "Speed Racer" Film Review

Film Rating: A-

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Speed Racer.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Speed Racer”
Originally published May 10th, 2008

I’m a huge fan of Anime (the animated TV shows of Japan), and Speed Racer is the granddaddy of them all (for Americans at least).  But it seems like whenever an American gets their hands on an anime, be they dubbing it into English or making a movie, they completely destroy the original material with a total lack of understanding.  Hollywood itself has a tendency to ruin the spirit of TV shows when they adapt them into movies.  Considering that Speed Racer is a TV show and an anime, the odds that an American could do the show justice seem slim to none.

But we’re talking about the Wachowski Brothers, the guys responsible for the Matrix trilogy; few people seem to know this, but The Matrix was heavily inspired by the style and tone of Japanese shows.  So if any American filmmakers were to take a stab at Speed Racer, who better than the Wachowski’s?  This is the first film they’ve directed since the third Matrix film, and reaction to the Matrix sequels has been mixed to negative.  Have they returned to cinema on the top of their game?  More importantly, did they do Speed Racer justice?


Just as they did with The Matrix in 1999, the Wachowski Brothers have taken us into another world, and redefined the visual medium of film.  Speed Racer is not The Godfather; it’s not a movie that will win Best Picture or even come close to being critically acclaimed, but this is one of the most mind-blowing, revolutionary and downright fun pieces of filmmaking in years. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Speed Racer (yes, that is his name) is a young man with natural racing instincts who idolized his older brother Rex, killed in a race years ago.  Speed is loyal to the family business, run by his dad Pops Racer.  The owner of Royalton Industries makes Speed a lucrative offer, but Speed rejects the offer, angering the owner. Speed also uncovers a secret that top corporate interests, including Royalton, are fixing races and cheating to gain profit. With the offer to Speed denied, Royalton wants to ensure that Speed will not win races. Speed finds support from his parents and his girlfriend Trixie and enters The Crucible in a partnership with the mysterious Racer X seeking to rescue his family's business and the racing sport itself.           

The Wachowski Brothers had quite a job on their hands in bringing the anime to theaters.  Speed Racer is such a fanciful, out-of-this-world type show that doing a straight, live-action racing film just wouldn’t cut it.  Then they had to write a two-hour plot that would stay true to the show and characters, but feel more cinematic in nature.  The music, pacing, casting choices and other elements would be other obstacles to overcome, and the Wachowski Brothers do it with expert precision.

Visually, Speed Racer is one of the most mind-blowing experiences I’ve ever had in a theater.  The Brothers wanted to make the film look like a live-action anime, and they hit the mark dead on.  Most of the film is actually CGI, filmed on a green-screen in hi-definition.  The cars, tracks, and general environment look like they were plucked right from the anime and turned 3-D.  The cars move fast and do some incredibly cool things that could never be done with 2-D animation.  The racing scenes are full of edge-of-your-seat thrills with some incredibly exciting and creative climaxes.  The live-action actors blend perfectly into this CGI world, though, and the result is spectacular.

Other ways to make it feel like an anime include large close ups of faces grazing over the screen while dialogue takes place, and the camera never stays stationary, instead moving in a circular motion around the actors.  The Wachowski Brothers obviously know they anime quite well, because every shot and angle in the film feels just like a live-action anime should feel. 

The level of detail is great, and the movie is a joy to look at.  I feel compelled to run out and buy a Blu-Ray disc player just so I can see this movie in hi-definition when it hits DVD.

But as the Star Wars prequels taught us, visuals are nothing without a good plot and good performances to back them up.  Thankfully, the Wachowski Brothers nailed this too.  The storyline is complex without being confusing, and it keeps the drama centered on the family, which is the focus of the anime as well.  The pacing of the story is great and never slows down, except for a brief bit in the first act. 

They’ve also assembled a top-notch cast, lead by Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) as Speed himself.  Hirsch definitely looks the part, and brings a similar level of charm to the role as was present in the anime.  My only complaint with his performance (and really my only complaint with the movie) is that he seems too depressed and angst-riddled sometimes.  I think this is a result of the writing more than the acting, but Speed should act more whimsical then this.  It’s a small complaint though, and he really finds the right balance in the last act of the film.

John Goodman fills the role of Pops Racer perfectly; he looks exactly like his anime counterpart, complete with an awesome moustache.  He is sincere in the role and is an all-around awesome parent.  Susan Sarandon is great as Speed’s Mom, and Christina Ricci sinks into the role of Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie, with ease.  She and Hirsch have a great on-screen chemistry, and she really shines when taking over the wheel from another driver later in the film.

But the man of the hour is Matthew Fox (Jack on Lost) as Racer X, the coolest character in the anime and the coolest character in the film.  Racer X may or may not be Speed’s brother (anyone who knows the anime knows the answer, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who don’t), and Fox is perfect in the role.  He just steals the show in every scene he’s present for.  He’s a bad-ass action hero with some demons in his past and is a character we can root for on the same level as Speed. 

The film is even better because of the great musical score by Michael Giacchino, the musician who writes the score to Lost.  His score is fast and exciting and really gets the blood pumping.  He puts in the Speed Racer theme song multiple times, first in brief snippets, building up a full orchestral version at the end. 

Speed Racer is a film with great visuals, phenomenal action, and a lot of heart.  At the center of it all is a family story, which pays off in spades.  It will leave you with a huge smile and a heightened blood pressure from the action.  Speed Racer is the ultimate popcorn movie, and the second great movie of the summer.  If the rest of the summer movie season is as good as its been so far, then we’re in for three great months of cinema. 

Go Speed Racer, go Speed Racer, go Speed Racer GO!!!   

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