Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Speed Racer”

Dear Frank,

I’m still not sure yet what I think of the latest film co-directed by the Wachowskis, Cloud Atlas. I’ve seen it twice (once at a test screening months ago, once again this last weekend), and parts of it are really fucking cool, and parts of it are deeply problematic. There’s no doubt that when it comes to the making of movies, the Wachowskis kill it on a scene-by-scene basis.

But when it comes to a complete whole: Well, there are victories (The Matrix) and then there are less-than-victories (the other Matrix movies). Speed Racer, the Wachowskis’ 2008 big-budget well-cast adaptation of the classic Japanese cartoon, falls into the latter category.

(Stop shouting at me, people who really like this movie! I know you exist. We will address your concerns in a bit.)

Speed Racer takes place in a magic candy-colored metropolis where everyone is obsessed with NASCAR — well, a hyper-futuristic NASCAR that looks like the makers of Mario Kart took acid. Like, a LOT of acid.

Like, seriously, a lot.

Speed Racer (that is actually his name his parents have the last name of Racer and named their three sons Rex, Speed and Sprittle no I don’t know why Sprittle it’s just what they did) is very good at racing cars, but is also haunted by the memory of his older brother, who was also very good at racing but then went and did black market racing or something and then there was a crash? I don’t know. Rex is dead, is the point, OR IS HE?

(He isn’t.)

This is all set up in a SEVENTEEN-MINUTE mash-up of flashbacks and flashforwards and racing that would be really compelling if it weren’t so incredibly fucking long and incoherent. (That is not the last time I will want to say that about something related to this movie.)

And then we get to the point: In the world of Speed Racer, racers usually work with a specific racing company who sponsors them — so after Speed does real good in the opening race, an evil corporation guy comes and offers Speed a contract — a sequence which takes at least TEN MINUTES, because we have to wander around the Evil Corp and see the facility with all its wacky setpieces.

And then Speed thinks about taking the deal for another ten minutes, and when he decides not to take it the Evil Corp Guy spends about ten minutes ranting about how all big races are now fixed by him and the other megacorporation guys, who use race victories to manipulate stock prices want to create a monopoly on making super-fast car engines. There is a reason why this light-hearted kid’s film is two hours and fifteen minutes long.

In the middle of all this thinking and talking and looking at things, there’s a bit where KOREAN POP SENSATION RAIN is in deep with some bookies and his sister is in danger, and gets rescued by the mysterious Racer X.

Racer X is NOT played by STREEEEEEEEET but is instead played by Matthew Fox, so there’s no way that Racer X is actually the presumed-dead Rex, right? RIGHT?

NOT AT ALL SPEED RACER’S MYSTERIOUSLY MISSING BROTHER, NOT IN THE SLIGHTEST.

(He is.)

Anyways, Evil Corp Guy punishes Speed for rejecting the deal by orchestrating a crash during Speed’s next race that destroys his car. And then the Racer family gets sued for copyright infringement. (That’s right, Frank, this is a movie for children where a copyright infringement lawsuit is a major plot point.)

So Speed’s gotta do something! The solution, it turns out, is to team up with Rain and Racer X to form a racing team (I’m not sure how you race as a team, but sure) — if they win, Rain’s family’s car company won’t get bought up by Evil Corp Guy, and Rain will turn over evidence that will discredit that copyright lawsuit.

Thus: Race race race! Racing! More racing! A lot of it looks like this…

Or this…

…but minus the heavy-handed flashbacks to big emotional parts of the movie I’m kinda skimming over here. Here’s the short version, Frank: Family is important and race car driving is awesome.

Before the BIG RACE, it turns out that Rain was actually conning Speed, so that deal’s off, but during the BIG RACE, Speed uses his racing magic to catch one of Evil Corp Guy’s drivers in the act of cheating. So Evil Corp Guy gets punished, Speed wins the race, he finally manages to kiss a very adorable Christina Ricci and Sprittle and his stupid fucking pet monkey wear tuxedos. THE END!

These two had a really weird dynamic the whole movie — probably because they’re playing a teenage couple in a movie for kids, which means they play it super-cutesy, and even though Christina Ricci is in her late 20s the whole thing feels very very inappropriate.

Frank, you might say I’m being pretty hard on a movie that’s beloved by many, to the point where it inspired a screaming match on Facebook. (To be fair, Jeff and I are heavily inclined to screaming matches.)

But why are a surprisingly large number of people surprisingly fond of Speed Racer? Well, for one thing, not everyone hates monkeys and monkey-related slapstick comedy as much as I do. (I really hate them/it.)

And there’s a lot to love about this movie — it’s lush with detail, building out the technicolor world of (okay, I’ll look up what they call it) Cosmopolis into a real place. No scene-scape feels unrealized, no wardrobe detail overlooked: Again, I don’t give a shit about monkeys, I find monkeys completely unentertaining, but I do enjoy how Sprittle wears pajamas with monkey heads on them while the monkey wears pajamas with human heads on them.

And here’s the truth of it: I saw this movie in IMAX at a Thursday midnight screening the weekend it came out, up at Universal Citywalk. Because this movie is so fucking long, it was about 3 AM when I got in my car and began driving home, down the 101.

Technically, I only needed to stay on the 101 for about a mile before getting off the freeway and winding my way home through Hollywood. But there was no traffic, my car had a full tank of gas, and the Matrix soundtrack was loaded on my iPod. And something about Speed Racer just got to me. Something about Speed Racer made me want to DRIVE.

So I just kept on driving, past the Hollywood exit, through to the 110, then the 10. The skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles rushed by as I maneuvered my way across lanes; I lapped around Los Angeles, windows open, music blasting, and rarely ever more alive.

The tone’s muddled, the messages unclear, but Speed Racer was more inspiring than at least half the biopics I’ve ever seen. And I will always remember it fondly for that.

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on November 1, 2012, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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