We don’t really ask much from our summer movies—just distract us long enough to get through half the mini-keg of diet cola and our vat of popcorn. Some chase scenes, a few fights, and a proper explosion to end things: It’s a time-tested formula that most of us are willing to pay for again and again, no matter how uninspired the execution. How else to explain the success of innumerable Caribbean pirates, spider men, and boy wizards?
But every once in a while, a filmmaker attempts to give us more for our money by actually recalculating that chase-fight-explode equation—and comes up with some surprising results. For viewers used to tried-and-true blockbuster formats, this can be a little jarring: Where is Will Smith? Why is there no space ship? Shouldn’t the superhero be appearing right about now?
And that’s the perception problem that Speed Racer faced as the best summer movie you didn’t see in 2008: Audiences and critics didn’t get it, like it, or want it. But it’s pretty damn good.
Of course, there are several good reasons why even the least-discerning moviegoer would be leery of buying a ticket: 1. It’s an American live-action movie adaptation of a 1960s Japanese TV series created by Tatsuo Yoshida; 2. It’s written and directed by Lilly (née Andy) and Lana (née Larry) Wachowski, the sisters (former brothers) who brought us the overblown and under-edited Matrix sequels; and 3. It’s all digital graphics all the time. Add those factors together, and you’ve potentially got two hours and 15 minutes of pure cinematic hell.
However, that’s not what happened; despite the odds stacked against it, Speed Racer is a bracingly original fusion of Eastern and Western pop culture that fills every millimeter of the screen with color, movement, and humor. It’s possibly the first movie in which the filmmakers truly exhibit total control of every single frame (or scan line)—absolutely nothing is left to chance, and every image is manipulated. While you may wonder whether that leaves any room for good ol’ celluloid magic, think of Speed Racer less as a traditional movie and more as the ultimate anime (another film genre where artists control everything you see). The Wachowskis have managed to create a bizarro-world fan film that not only pays tribute to weird Japanese cartoons but also to several decades’ worth of fringe entertainment, and it’s a one-of-a-kind mutant piece of fun.
For those whose sensibilities were not warped during childhood by Speed Racer (along with other Japanimation imports like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion), the plot is haiku-simple: Speed Racer is a young race-car driver in a family devoted to the sport, particularly his dad (“Pops”) who built his gadget-equipped car, the Mach 5. When he’s not out racing bad guys, he yearns for his older (and estranged) brother Rex—whom he suspects is actually the mysterious, masked Racer X who keeps saving his bacon on the track.
The Wachowskis take this bare frame of a story and weld together a sleek, modern vehicle that still uses design cues from the original model. This Speed Racer exists in an alternate universe where extreme motor sports captivate the masses with larger-than-life drivers, stupendous Hot Wheels tracks, and oddball vehicles (it’s kind of like NASCAR, but more fun). Everything in this world is huge, colorful, and futuristic in a 1950s Popular Mechanics way: landscapes, cities, buildings, flying cars. And both foreground and background are constantly in sharp focus; when the camera follows a jet car into a cityscape, for instance, don’t just stare at the aircraft as usual—look to the far corners of the city and you’ll see things happening below.
The actors inhabit this cartoon world without getting lost in it, playing their characters just broadly enough to make sense in their surroundings. Emile Hirsch portrays Speed Racer as a kind of obsessive speed freak—always itching to jump into the Mach 5 and get away because he nearly can’t stand dealing with reality and its disappointments. He turns down a big contract to race for a multi-national conglomerate, and quickly makes an enemy of its owner, who vows to crush him.
The plot is solid enough, the characters fun (even Chim Chim the monkey!), and the racing is exciting (if dizzying)—but the real draw here is the mash-up of pop-culture movie references, each one gloriously realized: mismatched London gangsters from different eras of British caper movies, kung-fu battles from ’70s Hong Kong action films, inept ninjas, costume-wearing race-car drivers out of Mad Max, evil-corporate-mastermind headquarters on a James Bondian scale…
Speed Racer is the manga-video-game mashup we never asked for, but should’ve enjoyed while we still could on a large screen.