Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review: Speed Racer (2008)

When I was a kid, there were a lot of cartoons available. I was born in 1983, the year He-Man was birthed into the world, so you know I had some pretty awesome television viewing when it came to animated series'. It's easy to forget in today's climate of constant non-stop kid's entertainment channels, but there was a time when kid's shows were constrained to a very particular schedule, which meant we had to be selective with what we actually watched. And among the shows I always made time for was a show that was a fair bit older than me. A show that many people like to mock and poke fun at. A show about a guy whose name is also a type of drug that seems tame when compared to most substances one can imbibe.

He also had radiant full eyelashes.
Yes, I loved Speed Racer as a child. Hell, I still love Speed Racer. I say that without a bit of irony. I adore every frame of the original series, love every comic issue of the Now Comics series, and I even enjoyed the short-lived revival series from the 1990s. When the live-action film was announced, I was excited, to say the least. But, I was also scared, as many movies had previously been based on things I grew up on and loved. And those movies had mixed results.

Apparently, those jagged masses of metal are supposed to be characters.
But we're not here to talk about what Hollywood got terribly wrong, but rather we're here to examine if they got this wrong too. Our movie opens on, what else, a race where Speed is smoking the competition. Immediately it's obvious the racing in this film is a bit faster and way more furious than your average car-flick. It's like a Hot Wheels playset came to life and it looks pretty damn cool. The race is interspersed with flashbacks as Speed thinks of his older brother, Rex Racer, and all the events that lead to him becoming a racer like his elder sibling. Chief among these reasons being that Rex died while fighting against corruption in the racing world. The race even ends with Speed racing a ghostly image of his brother's car, nearly breaking the legendary record he'd set. Speed pulls back in the end, letting his brother keep the record, and we get to see the Racer family at home. All these characters are here, plus one interesting addition as Pops is no longer a single father. Mom Racer is there, alive and well, helping to hold the whole family together.

And she looks pretty damn good for a lady who pushed out three kids (and possibly a monkey).
Of course, she's not the only woman in the picture, as we have the ever present Trixie. And, I've gotta say, Christina Ricci is great in this role. I'm not going to sit here and make up some reason as to why she's great. She just feels like Trixie. If nothing else, you can say her relationship with Speed is much more believable than her relationship with Casper. A lot less creepy too. Not because Casper was a ghost, but more because he kept asking if he could "keep" her. I suppose we have to chalk that up to him being from a different era, yes? Anyway, their breakfast is interrupted when E.P. Arnold Royalton, owner of Royalton Industries, shows up to invite them to his company to show off in the hopes that Speed will sign with him.

Yep, he's totally not the bad guy.
After the tour, Speed takes some time to himself and talks with Trixie about it, ultimately deciding not to partner up with Royalton. This cues the "shocking" reveal that the purple loving rich gentleman happens to be corrupt as fuck and he threatens to ruin the lives of the entire Racer family, which he seems to make good on. While all this happened, we got introduced to Taejo Togokahn, a young racer whose family owns a company that Royalton is planning to take over. It seems Taejo doesn't want to be a part of that and he ends up being tortured by Royalton's goons before being saved by Racer X, who makes him an offer to call him for help if things get really bad. Back at the Racer household, everything has gone bad for them and Inspector Detector shows up with Racer X to make them an offer to fight the corruption by working with Taejo to save his family's company in exchange for a file on all the shifty goings-on. Pops says no, but Speed and Trixie sneak off anyway and the Mach 5 gets decked out with some classic little additions so he can survive the cross-country rally where people generally kill one another. It doesn't help either that a lot of the drivers are actually hired mercenaries out to stop Taejo's team from winning.

This includes vikings. Racing vikings. I love that.
They survive the first half of the race and are allowed a reprieve, but sadly, Snake Oiler (Speed's rival from the classic stories) is in the lead and Taejo isn't happy about that. But he's not nearly as angry as Pops is when he finds out that Speed disobeyed him, leading to the entire family coming there and the two having a serious confrontation that ultimately results in Pops deciding to work on the car with Sparky, Speed's spotter/best friend. During the night though, they're ambushed by ninjas who poison Taejo and try to get at Speed and Racer X. The other ninjas soon learn that Racer X and the Racer family are not to be messed with. Seriously, Pops throwing a ninja out of a window, likely killing him. Brutal. But now Taejo can't race, as he's too weak from the poison to be able to start the race. Thus, Trixie stands in for him until they get to the top of the mountain, where they all switch out to finish the race. Up there, they run afoul of Royalton's goons and we get a truly lovely fight scene where everyone gets to kick thug ass (except poor Sparky).

That's alright, you were still great in Garage Days, man.

Afterward, Speed has to face his fears as he enters the tunnel where his brother died and Snake nearly takes him out too, but he recovers, taking out Snake with some clever maneuvering. In the end, Taejo wins and saves his company...but it turns out he was lying about giving them the file and was really only doing this to help his father. Speed, angry at this, takes off to the racetrack where he lets out his aggression as Racer X shows up to try and calm him down, resulting in him getting on the receiving end of that anger. Worried that he hurt him, he rushes to his car, only to find him laughing and telling him what a great driver he is. Speed confronts him then, saying he believes him to be his dead brother, but Racer X removes his mask and reveals he's not Rex. Later at home, Speed packs up, prepared to leave home to save his family in much the same way his older brother once did, but Pops stops him and they have a heart-to-heart.

"Son, did I ever tell you about where Chim Chim really came from...?"
Following this, Taejo's smoking hot sister shows up giving Speed the invitation to the grand prix that was given to her brother for winning the rally, saying that Speed earned it. This sets up the climax, as Speed enters the race to take on all the corrupt racers there who are desperate to take him down by any means. The further he pulls ahead, taking out the competition, the more people root for him. Even Taejo cheers him on. In the end, Speed wins using nothing but pure skill and Royalton's corruption gets revealed when Taejo does come forward. And we even see Inspector Detector and Racer X talk, a scene which reveals that Racer X actually is Rex with a different face. Speed and Sparky get to drink their victory milk, Trixie gets a smooch in front of the entire world, and the bad guy gets to go to poundtown. Yay!

Presumably, Racer X continues to be a mysterious bad-ass.
Now, getting down to the endgame here, was this movie good or bad? Well, I thought it was fucking amazing...but I am also biased. I adore Speed Racer. Of course, that bias didn't make me like that newer show, so perhaps I am able to be more objective than most people might think. If I really had to complain about anything, it'd be that Sparky wasn't more important. It might feel like a nitpick, but he's supposed to be Speed's best friend. Classically, he's always portrayed as such. Here though he's mostly portrayed as simply the goofy mechanic/spotter who only gets maybe two scenes that show he and Speed as true friends during the final act of the film. The big complaints I've seen is that people thought the effects in the film were overdone and that the story was too thin, but I personally find those critiques to be off-base. Sure, the story isn't any big political intrigue, but it's not meant to be. It's Speed Racer and it plays out like a Speed Racer story. It feels like a Speed Racer story. That's what I think is great about it. As for the effects, I have no complaints there either. They're fast and a bit intense at times, but they need to be. It's a stylized racing movie about a stylized racing show/comic. The cast were great too, all shining in their roles and portraying the characters perfectly. John Goodman was especially entertaining as Pops.

I nearly creamed all over myself when this scene happened.
It's a rather faithful and lovingly crafted adaption of a classic comic and animated series that isn't done to please anyone but people who truly love what was already there. It makes me long to read the comics all over again and to embrace the action and characters. This movie is a pure love letter to Speed Racer fans as made by Speed Racer fans and it shows through and through. It's a great movie and one of the few times Hollywood didn't take a steaming squat over our collective childhoods. But what do I know? Clearly I hate the Transformers films and the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, despite them being more successful than this one, so that must mean I have a shit opinion, yes? Or maybe, just maybe, I can look at things as they are and see the love shine through the crowd of commercialized shit that is often shoved at the public gaping maw. Just a thought. So, until the Wachowski's show up to give me high fives for digging and singing the praises of two of their movies that a lot of people don't talk enough about, I'll be here writing these things for you folks to enjoy. Actually, screw that. If that happens, I'll just keep writing anyway. Later days, bleeders.

AND STAY OUT OF THE CAR, YA LITTLE BASTARDS.

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