I can scarcely think of a film more worthy of the title “underrated” than the Wachowski’s 2008 gem Speed Racer. “Speed Racer?” you say. “Wasn’t that the movie that everyone hated, lost a bunch of money, and currently holds 40% on Rotten Tomatoes?”
“The very same!” I reply jovially, with a twinkle in my eye.
You: “…I suppose you’re going to tell me why-”
Me: “I thought you’d never ask! Speed Racer is a hyperkinetic, visually sumptuous car movie, that delivers consistently interesting and exciting race sequences, all the while telling a remarkably coherent story about family, the evils of big business, and the power of following your dreams. It’s funny and weird, and wears it’s big ol’ heart proudly on its sleeve. It’s everything great about the Wachowskis crammed into a two hour cartoon epic that I could watch a million times and never tire of. It’s so great.”
You: “So why didn’t people like it?”
Me: “Great question! The main criticisms of the film were levelled at the visuals and the storyline. Now, I’ll agree that the visuals are out there. For one, the Wachowskis filmed the movie on high-definition film, which enabled them to keep everything in focus at all times. This isn’t unusual for an animated movie, but for live action it’s pretty jarring. Speed Racer is also one of the most ridiculously colourful movies ever made – seriously, it makes Suspiria look like the trailer for the Suspiria remake. The transitions are stylized even by cartoon standards, and the special effects never once approach anything resembling real life.
Then there’s the story. It’s somehow both really simple – Speed Racer wants to race and, with the help of his family, does – and really complicated. For example, there’s a great deal of screen time devoted to the complexities of stock market manipulation. Again, this is a jarring combination, especially when you also factor in a lot of sequences involving a kid and his pet monkey. There’s a scene where the villain explains how people get rich by devaluing their companies, which is intercut with the aforementioned monkey/kid duo trying to steal a bunch of candy. It’s bonkers. There are lines of dialogue like this:
‘He’s going to be the best…if they don’t destroy him first’
‘This isn’t a race…it’s a showdown!’
and of course:
‘You think you can drive a car and change the world? It doesn’t work like that!’
The characters have names like Speed, Pops, and Racer X. There’s a guy who dresses like a cobra. Christina Ricci says ‘Cool beans’ a lot.
But here’s the thing…none of this is bad. The story may be a startling mix of serious and silly, but it’s also incredibly well told. Literally every character has a satisfying arc (kid/monkey included), and the themes of the movie are all beautifully articulated in the text. ‘Big business is evil’ is a pretty common concept in stories, but rarely has it been shown to be so all-consuming and impossible to overcome as it is here. ‘Family is important’ is also an oft-visited idea but in Speed Racer it takes on the kind of mythic proportions that would make Vin Diesel cry. Seriously, if you think the Fast and Furious franchise is about cars and family you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The dialogue is simple and direct when it has to be, as in the opening sequence which sets up the central conflicts better than just about any opening I’ve ever seen. But then you get a scene between Speed and his racing idol where the dialogue is entirely realistic, enhancing the weight and emotion of the exchange. Every actor knows exactly what movie they are in, and they deliver their lines with the kind of aching sincerity only the Wachowskis can inspire.
The visuals are positively eye-popping, but I would argue they perfectly match the tone of every scene. The races are chaotic when they should be, but can also be crystal clear. Unlike, say, Michael Bay, the Wachowskis know when to utilize different kinds of cinematography so that it always serves the story. And the transitions, oh the transitions! Video essayist Patrick Willems has an awesome essay about scene transitions in The Matrix, and it really highlights just how great the Wachowskis are at them:
So why didn’t people like this movie? I think it has to do with audiences’ and critics’ aversion to anything ‘cheesy’. Cheesy really means something that’s inauthentic (like a salesperson’s smile or Jurassic World), but has also come to mean anything that is too authentic. I’ve heard people describe The Last Jedi as cheesy, when it’s leaps and bounds more sincere than the muddled nostalgia of The Force Awakens. Aversion to sincerity is a tendency that we’re all guilty of, especially when we’re living in cynical times; let’s not forget that Speed Racer was made after we’d endured eight years of the Bush administration. It’s understandable that people wouldn’t exactly be in the mood for a technicolour fable about love triumphing over evil.
And now here we are; on the tenth anniversary of Speed Racer we find ourselves caught up in another Republican nightmare. The President of the United States is a worse person than the villain of Speed Racer – at least that guy didn’t brag about sexually assaulting people. I think in times like these, when cynicism and fear are calling the shots, we need movies like Speed Racer more than ever. It’s a plea for people to stop being shitty to each other, to work together, and create something that isn’t money. It’s one of the Wachowskis’ purest expressions of their philosophy, one which believes in another, better world, where human decency can triumph over greed and the desire to control. And hey, it also features a really adorable monkey.”
You: “Alright, I’ll give it a shot. But you were definitely wrong about Infinity War being a masterpiece.”
Me: “Yes…yes I was.”