by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our series on notorious box office bombs continues with 2008’s Speed Racer, the Wachowskis’ big-screen adaptation of the legendary 1960s anime series. Set in the colorful world of international auto racing, the film stars Emile Hirsch as the titular Speed, Christina Ricci as his best girl, Trixie, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as his parents (Pops and Mom Racer, respectively), Paulie Litt as youngster Spritle Racer, and Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X. The plot concerns Speed’s rise to prominence as the next great driver, his struggle to carry on the legacy of his deceased brother, Rex, and his face-off with Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), the evil CEO of Royalton Industries. Speed Racer was The Wachowskis’ first blank check film after the success of The Matrix trilogy, but its critical and commercial failure forced them out of the mainstream for years afterward. Despite the cool initial reaction, though, Speed Racer has become a cult classic in its own right and is often cited as an underappreciated landmark in special effects technology.
I completely dismissed Speed Racer when I saw it in 2008, frustrated that the team behind The Matrix had gone the family-friendly route instead of delivering another challenging science fiction masterpiece. Rewatching it in 2021 (and within the larger context of the Wachowskis’ career), I realize how similar the two films actually are: They’re both visual spectacles that synthesize comic book imagery with conventional cinematic language. They both flirt with pop accessibility while never losing sight of their fringe roots. Most importantly, they both take huge swings with a rare brand of belligerent confidence. Their major difference is essentially tonal: If The Matrix is the cerebral myth, then Speed Racer is the exploding-heart adventure. I could charge it with a thousand criticisms (its punishing length and scattershot plotting come to mind), but it’s hard to argue against Speed Racer as the complete, coherent vision of honest-to-god visionaries. It’s a lot to ask of an audience, but once I gave myself over to it, I had a great time.
Adam, what did you think of Speed Racer?
I think Speed Racer’s somewhere in the okay-to-not-great range. My appreciation for the movie is mostly respect for the Wachowskis and admiration that they put this big, bright, niche vision up on the screen. It’s a director's movie and I’m fascinated by it from that standpoint. It also feels like a reckless use of other people’s money, which is an exciting proposition in filmmaking. As a viewing experience, I find the movie tedious for long stretches. The story reminded me a lot of The Flintstones movie, which is not a good thing. On the other hand, I perked up a little during those scenes in Speed Racer because Roger Allam is giving a fun/over-the-top/chewing the scenery performance that fits with the tone of the movie. There are other performances I liked (John Goodman finds a good balance, although he looks distractingly like Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Bros.), but Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci (who looks so much like a young Susan Sarandon in this) seem lost in the bigness of Speed Racer and having Matthew Fox cast as your mysterious rogue is underwhelming. That casting needs to jump off the screen. I also really didn’t like all the shtick with Spritle, which is endless. Obviously, this character (and his monkey companion) are meant for the children watching the film, but it’s shot in such a way that it feels like you’re watching a 135-minute block of sketch comedy on Nickelodeon.
And while I agree with what you’re saying about the performances, I do also believe that Speed Racer’s strongest attribute is its focus on the Racer family as a dedicated unit, especially as it gets into the themes of integrity vs. corporate fascism. It’s the only reason I excuse the Spritle gags, really. Sarandon and Goodman both have a few nice scenes that center us back on their collective dynamic and importance to each other whenever things go too far into CGI noise. I’m not necessarily rooting for Speed; I’m rooting for this family.
Adam: What do you think of the visual effects? I remember them being amazing but this time I was surprised how sticker-y they looked in comparison to something like the motor ball scenes in Alita: Battle Angel. The effects in Speed Racer lean more towards the outdated 2002 Attack of the Clones school of vfx.
Rob: And that’s just what a lot of folks say is the movie’s strength: It does the Prequels better than the Prequels did. I don’t know if I agree, but the movie is so pot-committed to its technicolor insanity that I have to respect its willingness to go for it. I don’t know much about the original Speed Racer anime or manga (or much about anime/manga, in general), but I could at least recognize flashes of that exaggerated cross-cutting and lollipop texturing for which the medium is so famous. I’m sure completists recognized and appreciated it way more. I definitely see how watching it on a big screen could get overwhelming, but I didn’t find it all that bad. It all felt of a piece.
Adam: Also, have you ever heard the Speed Racer techno mix by Alpha Team? I was OBSESSED with this song when I was a kid. It’s really dirty so my parents obviously weren’t thrilled I was listening to it repeatedly on the way to baseball practice.
Rob: That was...something. I’d never heard this before, but I remember similar “x-rated” tracks made out of clips from old video games like Resident Evil. The early internet was so quaint! And horny! Nothing like the complex and horny internet that we have now.
You mentioned that Christina Ricci seems lost in Speed Racer, but I thought she seemed to be having a good time and had a few moments (like her late-game reveal as the driver) in which she felt pretty energized. In fact, the cast all apparently loved their experience making this and badly wanted a sequel. You’d think they’d have been overwhelmed and frustrated by all the green screen stuff, right? Another contrast with the Star Wars prequels. Movies are weird.
Rob: Oh, totally. Making another Matrix movie is 100% a batshit idea, but given the dynamics involved (One Wachowski instead of two, no Fishburne, etc.), I’m fascinated to see what they come up with. They can’t be doing this just for IP’s sake, right? None of the parties involved seem to really need this. That’s a good sign. It feels a bit like Blade Runner 2049, where I’m totally baffled by what the movie would even be and yet completely confident in the creators’ ability to make something worth our time.
Anything else on Speed Racer? Sorry this wasn’t your...speed.
Adam: No need to apologize. I liked this one more than a few others we’ve covered in ‘The Bomb Squad’ series and it’s an interesting miss (for me), which I’ll take any day.
We’ll be back next week with the next entry in our ‘Hundos’ series, celebrating the 100th highest grossing film of a particular year. Next up is the year 2000 and The Ninth Gate. Lots to unpack there, considering the problematic creators involved. Until next time…
Rob: These seats are reserved.