The Agony of Speed Racer

Few films will ever aspire to do what Speed Racer accomplishes. While films like Salo and Irreversible are specifically made to elicit a reaction from an audience, there is a large contingent of viewers and critics that would categorize them as films for no one. These are films so wrapped in vile subject matter and vicious style that the idea that anyone could ever watch them for “pleasure” seems nigh impossible. Of course, Salo and Irreversible though possibly repugnant and certainly hard to watch, are not in and of themselves unwatchable films. They possess examinable layers and are clearly meant to shock their viewers into thought and contemplation, for these films do contain ideas. Speed Racer manages to repulse and bludgeon viewers in much the same way, without having a single idea or notion in it’s entire 2 hour plus running time. Too caught up in subject matter boring or unpalatable to children while possessing an equal fascination for neon overload and sitcom humor, Speed Racer succeeds in alienating everyone.

I can just imagine the pitch meeting for this one. The Wachowski siblings sitting down with producer Joel Silver; Joel’s office drones abuzz just outside the door:

Intern 1: “The Wachowski’s are in there!”

Intern 2: “I hear they’re talking about doing a new movie!”

Intern 1: “This will be their first since the last Matrix movie!”

Intern 3: “I didn’t like that one!”

Intern 2: “I didn’t hate it, but it let me down a bit!”

Intern 1: “Either way, they’re visionary filmmakers with skills and their films have never been bereft of ideas!”

Intern’s 2 & 3: “Good point!”

Meanwhile, The Wachowski’s pitch Joel.

Andy: “We want to make a film about Speed Racer.”

Joel: “Whatever you guys want to do, you did The Matrix.”

Larry: “It’s going to look like a candy colored nightmare.”

"I wanna wake up!"

"I wanna wake up!"

Joel: “Whatever you guys want to do, you did The Matrix.”

Andy: “It’s going to be written as if for children, but possess plot points involving corruption, the stock market, and insider trading.”

Joel: “Whatever you guys want to do, you did The Matrix.”

Larry: We have this new technique we’ve developed where instead of cutting, we’ll use an image to wipe the screen. It’ll seem inventive and neat the first five or so times we do it, but by the end of the film, you’re going to want to cut out your eyes.

Yes, this is exactly what this revolutionary technology looks like. Woot.

Yes, this is exactly what this "revolutionary" technology looks like. Woot.

Joel: “Whatever you guys want to do, you did The Matrix.”

Andy: “We’re going to stay slavishly devoted to the Speed Racer source material, so we’re going to need a monkey-”

Larry: “And a fat kid!”

Joel: “Whatever you guys want to do, you did The Matrix.”

Andy: “It’s going to be filmed entirely on green screen, and look extra fake. Never at any moment will the actors believeably interact with their surroundings.

Larry: “We’re also going to work into the script the importance of independent enterprise. Un-ironically.”

Joel: “Whatever you guys want to do, you did The Matrix.”

And then Joel wrote them a check.


Speed Racer is like one bad idea stretched past the breaking point. Not even fifteen minutes into it’s running time Speed Racer lays out all it’s tricks, which it then repeats and repeats and repeats for the following two hours. Emile Hirsch famously fired his agent the day after this film premiered, which makes sense as he is clearly hating his life in practically every frame. All of the other major characters are portrayed as over exuberant cartoons, prone to big eyes, wide smiles and exaggerated gestures. This broad style works for the material, but Hirsch is so brooding and bored that he sucks the life out his scenes, not that they had much life to begin with. If everyone had run around manic for two hours, it would have been just as bad while at least matching the aesthetic. Hirsch’s perpetually downbeat Speed takes what could have been a camp romp and drowns it in overly serious mugging. Couple this with the broad performances of just about everybody else and it starts to feel like the characters should be in different films.

The plot consists of a variety of similar looking auto races broken up by lame plot points involving the corruption of auto racing, the use of fixed races to boost stock points, the importance of family, the greatness of pancakes, a kung-fu fight in the mountains, Racer X’s dark secret, and a fat kid and his monkey friend. I’ll admit, the ingredients are here for an insane, over the top, what-the-fuck-is-this kind of film, but nothing launches into the surreal or sardonic.* Presenting all of these things at face value, the question becomes; what is the point of this entire enterprise? The Wachowski’s aren’t dumb. They are aware of the hypocrisy of a large company like Warner Brothers putting out a film that reviles the conglomerate and embraces the independent. Did they think that just the act of putting this film out would be a subversive action? If that was the case to bilk a major studio out of a couple hundred million dollars, then bravo. But the damage done to the audience isn’t worth it.

The most maddening thing about Speed Racer is that it is a thudding bore. Since every color is as bright and glowing as possible, everything pops which means nothing pops, giving the film an extra fake, flat veneer. The Wachowski’s have three films in their resume that display a genius for action sequences, a genius they must have left at home while filming Speed Racer. The races are rarely impressive, and worst of all display little in the way of actual racing. Cars spend so much time slamming into each other and flipping around that it becomes impossible to get any sense of place or space which these vehicles inhabit. Speed is touted as a great driver, but every race appears to consist mostly of destroying the other cars by knocking them off the track or blowing them up and then driving unopposed to the finish line. Yeah, racing! The hand to hand fights in this film are played mostly for laughs, and thus feel lazy and tossed off, especially when you consider they’re from the same people who gave us The Matrix. It must suck when you set the bar so high for yourself.

I don’t get to say this often, but without a doubt Speed Racer is one of the worst films I have ever seen. The one good thing to take out of this is that the Wachowski’s have real egg on their face this time, and must certainly have less clout than before. Let’s hope they scale down and remember the lessons of their best films, the ones focusing on story and character.

to hell, Speed Racer.

to hell, Speed Racer.

*There is one moment that comes close to a good kind of crazy. In the middle of a sequence where the villain of the film is explaining to Speed Racer all of the corruption and backstage machinations that go on in the world of racing and the fate that awaits Speed if he doesn’t fall in line, the film cuts away at random intervals to the fat kid and the monkey stealing candy and gorging until they pass out, then escaping on a scooter while the guitar solo from “Freebird” plays. For a second, I chuckled. But cut into the serious scene playing out between the villain and the hero, it undermines the entire enterprise, and plays as sad pandering to children. Because kids love candy, right?


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3 Responses to “The Agony of Speed Racer”

  1. McCarty Says:

    I’m glad to read that you liked the movie.

  2. Sean Michaels Says:

    On the grounds of blowing my reputation as a lover of great movies, I must confess that I enjoyed Speed Racer. Of course, I also rented “Wrestlemaniac”.

  3. Lorin Says:

    I’ve heard that there is a bubbling underground of people who like it. My question is, why?

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