In retrospect, the Wachowski brothers (at the time, Larry and Andy) peaked critically and commercially with The Matrix trilogy. The good will they endeared with the first film gradually dissipated until the full-on backlash came with the third installment from which they’ve never recovered. They continue to make ambitious, expensive sci-fi epics like Cloud Atlas (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2015) to routinely negative reviews and lackluster box office returns.
It started with Speed Racer (2008), the Wachowskis’ attempt to reach a broader audience by making a family film based on the popular Japanese anime and manga of the same name. The film was high-profile flop, getting savaged by critics and failing to come close to recouping its pricey $120 million budget. In recent years, the film has begun to undergo something of a critical re-evaluation and I’ve always been struck by its strong visual sense and its touching ode to the familial bond as well as its thinly-veiled critique of the destructive effect of corporate greed on the purity of sports.
The young Speed Racer we first meet is a hyperactive dreamer that fantasizes about racing fast cars just like his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) whom he idolizes. He would rather spend all of his time at the racetrack hanging out with his brother than in school. Rex teaches his younger brother everything he knows, like how to use his instincts and his senses to race. It’s a wonderful scene that provides crucial insight into what motivates Speed to race – the love of the sport and of his brother who died tragically in a race.
The Wachowskis also use this scene to establish the film’s striking visual sense – a hyper-stylized, vibrant color scheme that hasn’t been seen to this degree since Warren Beatty’s bold take on Dick Tracy (1990). Speaking of Beatty’s opus, Cruncher Block (John Benfield) and his cartoonish goons (including one with the most glorious set of mutton chops I’ve ever seen) with their tommy guns seem like a nod to that film, albeit with a modern twist. Establishing the world of Speed Racer right from the get-go is an important decision because it let’s us know that this is a fantasy world with its own look, much like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) or Sin City (2005). The Wachowskis also introduce their innovative take on car racing and car chases, employing the immersive, time-bending aesthetic of the fight sequences in The Matrix films to Speed Racer, dubbed, appropriately enough, “car-fu.”
The flashbacks not only establish the emotional bond between Speed and Rex over racing but shows the cut-throat tactics rival racing teams will employ when a bomb is delivered to Speed’s home, only to be quickly dealt with by his brother. It is ominous foreshadowing of the lengths rival teams will go to in order to stop Speed.
The dilemma Speed (Emile Hirsch) faces comes in the form of E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), the smug, super rich owner of Royalton Industries, and who courts the young driver to race for his team, enticing him with a lavish lifestyle and unlimited resources. The Wachowskis make a point of contrasting Royalton’s calculated corporate culture with its obedient, uniformed employees, automated car factory and rigorously physically trained racers with the Racer team that still works out of Pops (John Goodman) garage where he and Sparky (Kick Gurry) spend weeks building a car with their own hands. They are supported by a small team of people that consist of Speed’s mom (Susan Sarandon), his little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), and Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci).
After rebuffing Royalton’s advances, Speed loses his next race, which leaves him disillusioned. It takes his mom to remind him what is important in life when she tells him, “When I watch you do some of the things you do I feel like I’m watching someone paint or make music. I go to the races to watch you make art and it’s beautiful and inspiring and everything art should be.” This passionate speech is the heart of the film and perfectly encapsulates its central theme. The rest of the film depicts Speed’s mission to expose Royalton’s corrupt practices with the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).
Emile Hirsch brings his trademark intensity to the role and it is interesting to see an actor who mostly plies his trade in challenging independent cinema bring that approach to a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. He manages to not get lost amidst all the eye-popping visual effects and has decent chemistry with Christina Ricci, whose big eyes and exuberant take on Trixie, resembles a live-action anime character.
John Goodman gets to engage in a couple of action sequences and, more importantly, a meaningful scene where Pops has a heart-to-heart talk with Speed. Veteran character actors like Goodman and Susan Sarandon tend to get lost in big budget blockbusters like this one – relegated to the margins in favor of CGI set pieces but the Wachowskis make sure that they are given moments to actually act and emote. Both of their moments occur at pivotal moments in the film where their characters give their son important advice about life.
Whole essays could be written about Speed Racer’s bold, visual aesthetic. For example, as Racer X’s attack on Cruncher Block’s mobile hang-out is chock-a-block with saturated reds and midnight blues that is pure visual catnip. The film’s style is its substance as the Wachowskis pay homage to the original anime while also making it uniquely their own and in doing so create a very personal movie within the studio system. One can see racing as a metaphor for filmmaking and the Wachowskis seeing themselves as Speed. Like, their principled protagonist, they do not want to lose their personal touch by being seduced with the lavish riches the studios can provide. Like Speed, they must remain true to themselves and the love for their art.
This is evident early on in a scene where Speed tells Royalton why he can’t be a part of his team by recounting a story of when he was young, staying up late one night with his father watching a vintage car race and how that rekindled his love for racing after his brother died. They got caught up in the race as if they were watching it for the first time – “But for Pops it isn’t just as a sport. It’s way more important than that. It’s like a religion.” One gets the feeling that is exactly how the Wachowskis feel about cinema. Naturally, Royalton mistakes Speed’s passion for naiveté and ridicules him, his glad-handing façade disappearing as he shows his true colors. He gives Speed a history lesson, claiming that competitive car racing is fueled by corporate greed and races like the iconic Grand Prix are fixed. He even goes so far as to threaten Speed, telling him that he won’t finish the next race and he’ll ruin Pop’s business.
The film’s innovative style extends to the flashback techniques the Wachowskis employ, complete with stylish scene transitions that succinctly provide crucial motivation for key drivers in an impending race. The eye-popping visuals are unleashed in the Casa Cristo 5000, a deadly off-road race that killed Rex. All bets are off in this race as many drivers employ a myriad of dirty tricks, like shooting green goop at a rival, blades coming out of hubcaps, a sledgehammer launched from underneath a car, and one vehicle that catapult launches a nest of angry bees onto a rival’s car. The action is fast and furious as the Wachowskis are not bound by the traditional rules of physics and this allows them to embody the dynamics of a live-action cartoon in a way that is audacious and inventive as well as pure visual eye candy. This race lays the groundwork for the final one, which comes across as trippy fusion of Rollerball (1975) and Tron (1982) as all the other racers try to take out Speed – it’s the honest racer against a rigged system.
In fact, Rex gives up everything in order to protect his family. He turns his back on them, becomes a dirty racer and ultimately sacrifices his life. The Wachowskis make a point of showing the impact it has on his family. Once Speed becomes a professional racer he constantly lives in the shadow of Rex, honoring his memory and his accomplishments by refusing to beat his records, even though he could. For Speed, it is more than beating records and winning races – it’s about making his parents proud and racing for the sheer love of the sport.
The original 1960s Speed Racer cartoon was the Wachowskis’ introduction to Japanese animation or anime and the impetus for making the film was that “they wanted to do something their nephews and nieces could watch,” said producer Joel Silver in an interview. He had been trying to make a film adaptation since the early 1990s with Vince Vaughn, at one point, campaigning to play Racer X and the various others, like Johnny Depp and music video director Hype Williams, circling the project. Silver acquired the rights in 1996 and hired eight different screenwriters to crack adapting the property but none of them satisfied the demanding producer. While working with the Wachowskis on V for Vendetta (2005), he asked them if they’d be interested in making it. They were hesitant at first but agreed if they could bring something unique to the material.
For the look of the film, production designer Owen Paterson wanted something “quite timeless, retro and midcentury, but set some time in the future,” creating “a parallel world, an exaggeration of color and action and images.” According to visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, they set out to “create something that’s much more fantastical than what we saw in The Matrix films.” They took the idea that in animation there is no matching perspective between the background and foreground and applied photographic techniques so that they had a live-action film built out of flat layers of photos.
To that end, locations scouts and photographers took approximately 10 million 360-degree, high-definition photographs of settings in Greece, Morocco, Italy, France, Germany, Death Valley, and sections of the California coast using ultrahigh-definition cameras. According to Gaeta, they applied an enhancement to these photos or, “sometimes a matte painting over the locations, ahead of the live-action photography. So then, in the movie, out of the window of a Moroccan palace you see the Italian Alps. We have these bizarre combinations that don’t necessarily make sense but they create these very stunning images.” They were then used in scenes utilizing green screen technology on the sets of Studio Babelsberg near Berlin.
Roughly 75-85% of the film was shot on green screens with the rest done on vibrantly painted sets to match the look of the world the Wachowskis were creating. While more than 100 cars were modeled and created digitally, two of them – Speed’s Mach 5 and Racer X’s Shooting Star – were given full-sized replicas with the actors sitting in replica cockpits that were mounted on a hydraulic gimbal platform linked to racing software programmed to pre-conceived sequences.
When Speed Racer was released the critical brickbats came out in force with The New York Times’ A.O. Scott leading the charge: “Mobsters, detectives, sportscasters and ruthless rival racers all parade across the screen, but none of them generate the sparks of humor, danger, energy or nobility that would ignite a sense of pop magic. Speed Racer goes nowhere, and you’d be amazed how long the trip can take.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “This newest iteration is about a demon on wheels who’s chasin’ after someone for 135 minutes – which makes for an awful lot of wheel spinning.” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote, “You could call it entertainment, and use it to wow your children for a couple of hours. To me, it felt like Pop fascism, and I would keep them well away.” The rare positive review came from Time magazine’s Richard Corliss who wrote, “You can tell that everyone had liberated fun making the film; it feels like the group effort of Mensa kids let loose in the paint store.”
I’m ashamed to say that I was swayed by the negative reviews at the time and did not see Speed Racer on the big screen – something I regret deeply since. It was fellow blogger Dennis Cozzalio over at the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog whose passionate defense of the film inspired me to check it out. He wrote, “Far from finding Speed Racer incoherent, I instead discovered it to be a whooshing marvel which challenged me to see a simple story with fresh, often incredulous eyes, one that doesn’t exploit easy nostalgia but instead takes an elastic approach to the familiar tropes of the cartoon, creating an experience of film merged with digital effects that folds back on itself in exhilarating new ways.”
Not surprisingly, Speed Racer proved to be too idiosyncratic for the masses but, by and large, the Wachowskis have managed to make the films they want to make despite repeated commercial and critical failures. Undoubtedly, the film is a complete failure, commercially speaking (it’s running time is too long for kids to sit through), but on artistic terms it is a triumph – a fascinating allegory for remaining true to one’s self as an artist. Speed Racer is a phantasmagoria of CGI imagery guaranteed to melt your eyeballs and a rare studio film unafraid to bite the corporate hand that fed it, all wrapped up in a brightly colored pop art bow.
Bowles, Scott. “First Look: Speed Racer’s Demon on Wheels.” USA Today. May 30, 2007.
Dunlop, Renee. “The Wachowski Brothers Bring Live Action Anime, Color and Movement to New Levels in Speed Racer.” CGSociety. May 16, 2008.
Hobart, Christy. “The Speed Racer Time Warp.” Los Angeles Times. May 8, 2008.
Kit, Borys. “Speed Hits Live-Action High Gear.” The Hollywood Reporter. November 1, 2006.
Lawrence, Will. “Speed Racer: Fast-Moving World of the Wachowski brothers.” The Telegraph. April 25, 2008.
McCarthy, Erin. “Speed Racer’s Breakthrough CGI Road Rally: Anatomy of a Scene.” Popular Mechanics. October 30, 2009.
“Wachowskis Are Good to Go Speed Racer.” Los Angeles Times. November 1, 2006.