I have never cared for Japanese anime. I have never read Manga. I have never seen more than a glimpse of the original 1960s “Speed Racer” cartoon. I don’t have a jones for cars. But, surprise of surprises, I do love “Speed Racer,” the live-action adaptation of said cartoon. Directed by the Wachowski brothers (“Bound,” the “Matrix” trilogy), this is one of the best family adventures made in years. It’s a ripping action picture, a surprisingly potent family drama, and a visual wonderland that is literally unlike any other movie ever made.
A little plot: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the oldest surviving son in a family of race car enthusiasts. Pop Racer (John Goodman, giving his best performance in years) builds his own race cars in the family garage. Mom (Susan Sarandon, also bringing her ‘A’ game) is the supportive matriarch. Spritle (Paulie Litt) is the hero-worshiping youngest sibling. Although Speed quickly becomes a top-notch racer in the professional circuits, the entire family is still haunted by the death of the eldest son, Rex Racer, in a shady underground race several years prior. After an impressive race, Speed and the entire family are propositioned by the evil tycoon Royalton (Roger Allam), who wants Speed for his races and Pop’s technology for his own industrial use. Disaster strikes when Speed turns down Royalton’s offer and the entire family must mobilize to restore their honor, bring down Royalton, and mend their own lingering scars.
As the previews promise, the entire world of “Speed Racer” is a candy-colored blast of visual nirvana (see it in IMAX if you can). The screen is filled with bold, bright colors, and the races unfurl at a breakneck speed that defies reality but always respects the rules of this particular universe. Jokes have been made about this movie resembling the video game series Mario Kart, and they aren’t completely off-base. Aside from the colors and the physics of the racing, the entire film has a swift swirly look to it, using montage in completely unique ways to quickly dispense exposition or flash back to pivotal moments without really leaving the present action. It’s hard to describe, but it works seamlessly. And no, this film will not cause motion sickness. Despite the lightning-fast races and the sheer physical momentum of the action, it is all blocked and staged in a way to maximize geographical clarity. We are not always supposed to know exactly what’s going on in every moment of the race (the opening race is more of a backdrop for character introduction than a relevant action scene), but when we need to know, it’s always crystal clear.
That the film would be visually spectacular is a given considering the pedigree behind the camera . Less expected is the top-notch acting, clever dialogue, and complicated storyline that never panders or talks down to kids. The film is intended as a family film, but it never sacrifices action, story and drama for that PG rating (it’s full of action, but with only enough violence and profanity to make kids think they’re getting away with something). Yes, the film is fast when it needs to be, but it is unafraid to slow down or quiet introspection or character development.
Story-wise, it’s a smart thing they do here. Knowing that the plot involving fixed races and white collar corruption is far too complicated for young kids to follow, the script has characters occasionally express their own confusion and then state in simpler terms just what’s at stake for them (“I don’t know anything about corporate crime. I just know they hurt my family, and I want to hurt them back.”).
All of the actors are in peak form, and it helps sell the drama immensely. Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, and Matthew Fox (as the mysterious Racer X) all have scenes that belong on a career highlight reel. Roger Allam has a long villainous monologue at the end of the first act that is a joy to listen to. By never winking at the audience, the film becomes a surprisingly moving family drama that makes the action count for more than just visceral movement. Especially when the main conflicts kick into gear, the non-racing scenes are every bit as watchable and satisfying as the main event.
“Speed Racer” works splendidly on all levels. It is a top-notch action picture with real emotional pathos and strongly developed characters. It is a visual landmark that is a joy to watch, yet it remembers to contain dialogue that is a joy to listen to. It is easily the best film of 2008 thus far (yes, it’s better than the under-nourishing and overrated “Iron Man”), and it’s a surprising treat for the whole family.