The Wachowski Sisters are, quite possibly, my favorite filmmakers. Not only that, but they are figures of personal inspiration to me because seeing them transition so publicly so late in their lives after they’ve already made the films that they’re likely going to be most remembered for… well, it gave me hope when I really needed it very badly. It’s still really jarring seeing their deadnames in the credits (time for a theatrical rerelease of all their films fixing that? I would so go to that marathon). But I’m so used to only seeing people like at least 10 years younger than me transition. (And Caitlyn Jenner, who was much older than me when she transitioned, but she can go to hell and I will never see her as an inspirational figure.)
The first time I saw Speed Racer was not under ideal circumstances. My parents are alcoholics, and they relapsed. Pretty much every night during this period of my life, they got blackout drunk. (After slurring words at dinner drunk, unpredictable outbursts of positive and negative emotion drunk, loud music drunk, etc.) They never laid a hand on me, but things were like this for years, and I spent every night that I was home either barely leaving my room or finding somewhere to go. One night, I was taking all this much harder than usual, and I knew that I just had to get out of the house. That’s how I ended up seeing a lot of movies during this period of life, and I decided that the one I wanted to see on that night was one I had seen breathlessly recommended by a friend on LiveJournal (yeah, yeah, yeah, it was 2008, gimme a break).
Whatever negative feelings I brought into the theater that night, they were blasted out of my brain by what I would later describe as “nerd candy.” When a friend asked me a few days later if I wanted to go see this with her at the cheap theater, I told her that I had already seen it… but hell fucking yes I wanted to see it at the cheap theater with her. I bought the DVD as soon as it came out. I used watching it for this challenge as an excuse to buy the Blu-ray even though I still have said DVD. I am over the moon for this movie.
Before I move on to explaining why I love this movie so much, I need to take a moment to acknowledge its glaringly obvious problem. I’ve never watched the Speed Racer anime or read the manga, but from what I gather the characters in it are pretty definitely Asian, but when the series was dubbed for American audiences, a lot of them were given Americanized names. And this has led to a lot of American audiences seeing them as white, because anime characters don’t “look Asian” (but they also don’t really look white???).
So, it probably won’t come as much surprise that I think that casting Asian actors and giving the characters their original names back is the right play here. Even if you don’t agree with me, at least follow me this far: by casting all white actors you are confirming people’s feelings that white is the “default” race. They look at animated characters whose racial identity isn’t obvious to them, decide they’re white, and you throw a white cast at them in the live action adaptation to confirm those feelings. I mean, what the hell?
I really, really hope that this was a decision forced on the Wachowskis by the studio rather than their own decision (I haven’t been able to find out anything about it, which is a problem in and of itself because it’s been long enough that they really ought to have made candid comments about it by now). Whatever the case may be, it’s a stupid decision, because even if your motivation is to make it more marketable to American audiences, that’s not working because these whitewashed anime adaptations keep tanking at the box office.
Sidenote: I completely understand if this aspect of the film sinks it for anyone else. The movie has a lot of personal importance to me, and I admire the hell out of basically every other aspect of the filmmaking but this, but… I can really see how this could poison it for someone else. If I judged films completely on ethical grounds, this would be a deal-breaker for me. And if you think any less of me for continuing to be enthusiastic about this film in spite of the racism involved in its production, I understand.
The first thing that jumps out at you about Speed Racer is that it’s actually a live-action cartoon, right? It’s one of the most distinctive visual styles I’ve ever seen. Obviously you have all of the animated backgrounds, the distinctively bright and simple set design, and the heavy editing. And there is a lot, a lot of visual comedy. But those immediately obvious elements aren’t the only thing that Speed Racer borrows from cartoons. There’s an earnestness to the proceedings that overrides everything else. And the flashy visuals are never used to hide anything, they’re only used to reveal.
The “cartoonish” aspect of this that I absolutely dreaded as soon as they were introduced was Speed’s little brother Spridle and Chim Chim, and honestly they really could’ve sunk the movie in a lesser director’s hands. (Just, like, totally random example, I don’t know, maybe… GEORGE LUCAS. No idea why he came to mind. Honest.) The Wachowskis seem to realize this, and these characters are in it exactly enough to be endearing, but not enough to overstay their welcome.
It would be fair to say that the character writing here is not especially complicated, but what really jumps out at me is the relationships. All of the relationships in Speed’s life are positive and functional. And that doesn’t mean characters can’t surprise you. The gruff-looking father isn’t harsh or distant, the soft-spoken mother isn’t about to be pushed out of any conversation, etc. And that doesn’t mean that there is no conflict in Speed’s family. It’s just that all of that conflict occurs within the context of well-intentioned characters who want the best for each other.
All of this makes it even more appropriate that the secret weapon, the thing that makes Speed such a great driver, is empathy. We see his brother teaching him how to drive, and he tells him things like, “Stop steering and start driving,” and, “All you have to do is listen.”
The villain of this film is Arnold Royalton, an arch-capitalist who initially meets Speed and his family with a bullshit veneer of friendship, saying things like, “Pancakes are love,” and, “I sympathize–no, strike that, I empathize,” while the audience can’t help but see the slime dripping from every syllable. He’s charming and charismatic enough, which just makes him even more effective.
He proceeds to take Speed on a tour of his corporate headquarters, one which basically floors Speed (and the audience) with how big and impressive his enterprise is. But as the above quoted speech from Mr. Racer suggests, there is something sinister about the whole thing. When we see drivers working out, Royalton comments that the drivers need to be “as perfectly tuned as the machines they’re driving.” And that’s when it hits you, that if Speed joins them he’s just another cog in the machine. It’s an old cliche about capitalism, but it’s a cliche for a reason.
And that’s before Speed turns down Royalton’s contract offer and Royalton tells Speed about how racing is fixed and all that matters is capitalism and money and all of his dreams are meaningless. Which, by the way, is done with some pretty staggering intercutting between what Royalton says is going to happen and it happening. And normally this sort of structure would drive me crazy, but this is one time that I actually don’t think a more conventional structure would’ve been a good idea at all. All that’s happening here is we’re getting Speed to his low point, and the way this is structured accomplishes that with the utmost story economy. The real driving force of Speed’s downward spiral is Royalton’s speech, and we see exactly as much of the race at Fiji and its aftermath as we need to confirm what Royalton is saying. No more, no less.
And let me just say, on a personal note, seeing Speed snapping out of a tailspin is something that I’ve needed at several points of my life, including this most recent rewatch.
So, what’s the big deal about racing, anyway? Perhaps unsurprisingly in a movie called Speed Racer that’s based on an anime where (from what I gather) racing has world-changing consequences and heroes and villains, racing isn’t really just racing. Like, I could honestly give a shit who wins the Daytona 500 (I only even know it’s a thing because I loved that Sega Saturn game), but if I lived in this world it seems like I would be an awful lot more likely to as racing seems to have more far-reaching implications.
The film more or less takes for granted that this is the case, and if you need any help selling you on that just look at how every character reacts to racing like it’s a life or death thing. And I’m not just talking about the Racer family (try not to think too much about the odds of them having that surname, btw), who have an obvious reason to have a vested interest in it. I’m talking about the way this world’s capitalists and law enforcement and organized crime and everyone else treats racing like it’s literally the most important thing in the world.
What’s really interesting to me is how something as simple as the finishes of each race actually function in the narrative. In the first race, at Thunderhead, Speed is about to set the course record. This establishes that Speed is a crazy talented driver. Moreover, his chase for the record results in him literally chasing his brother’s ghost, and we intercut a lot of information about his family, particularly his brother. We learn an unbelievable amount of information in a very short span, and we also see a lot of characters having some pretty profound emotional reactions to this surrounding context.
And then Speed is about to break the record, but he takes his foot off the gas at the last second, preserving the record. This tells us a lot. It tells us about Speed’s innate goodness, it tells us about the tremendous amount of respect and love he has for his brother, and it also fits the needs of the narrative because Speed isn’t ready to be the hero of the narrative yet. Before Royalton’s revelation, before he questions everything, before he goes through several trials that hone him… he’s just a really good driver with a good heart. This was the right finish for the first race we see.
I already touched on Fiji–we don’t even see the finish of that race, we just see that Speed is knocked out of the competition. Casa Cristo gives us a pyrrhic victory that’s needed to set up the last reversal that puts Speed at his truly lowest point, about to leave home and try to figure things out.
And that brings us to the best damn climax I’ve ever seen in a movie.
The Grand Prix is the best grand finale I’ve ever seen. It services every character, it pays off everything Speed and his family have been through, and there is just something beautifully cathartic about seeing capitalists running around panicking because of a damn car race. That’s the thing: Speed Racer is basically a perfect sports movie, perfect because despite having a relatively stereotypical sports movie ending that ending means something because there are actual stakes attached to it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Speed’s entry into the race alone throws everything into chaos. Royalton, as alluded to, loses his mind and offers a massive bounty for any driver who can take him out so the Grand Prix can go according to script. An announcer exclaims, “holy (bleep)” on live television. They sell the hell out of his mere presence changing the entire equation.
A few racers try to take Speed out before the race can even really start, but he manages to evade them with a well-timed jump. And then it’s off to the race (literally) and Speed is driving like a man possessed. He is such a force of nature that none of the other racers even seem to pose a serious challenge to him. He just barrels past them, jumping, flipping, knocking other cars out of midair before they can do the same to him. Every obstacle they throw at him is brushed aside. Every one until Cannonball.
Cannonball Taylor, the most decorated racer of all time, handpicked by Royalton to defend the monopoly he means to build with this race. Before the race, the announcer said that this was less of a race and more of a showdown. It especially applies here.
Speed brashly challenges, “Okay Mr. two-time-Grand-Prix five-time-WRL future-Hall-of-Fame, teach me something!” Both cars spiral towards each other. We cut to Racer X rising to his feet out of instinct. His reaction mirrors the audience’s. Speed and Cannonball aggressively manuever around each other. Speed snarls, “Get that weak shit off my track!” The announcer, who earlier mournfully confirmed to Speed that the fix was in on racing, implores (possibly too quietly for his mic to pick up), “Tear him up, kid. Tear him up.” Impossibly, Cannonball is clearly outmatched.
In one last gasp of desperation, Cannonball hurls his vehicle at Speed’s like a weapon and captures it with an illegal device–a spearhook. Speed is hurtled around helplessly until he sees what he needs: a camera. With a cry of desperation he launches his car into the air–and Cannonball’s with his–drawing an audible gasp from the crowd as he reveals the illegal device. The artifice is shattered. Royalton, in his suite, is beside himself as he sees his entire world come crumbling down around him.
The jump also dislodges the spearhook, but Speed’s engine dies and he doesn’t know why. His father informs the audience that there’s a way to jumpstart it, but Speed wouldn’t know about it. And that brings us back to what makes Speed such a good driver in the first place, what his brother taught him: empathy. Don’t panic. Just listen.
The engine roars back to life. Michael Giaccino, whose soundtrack I have somehow not mentioned until now (it’s perfect throughout the film, by the way), appropriately titled the track for this last segment of the race “Reboot.” All Speed has to do now is once again overtake the entire field. But the movie rightly doesn’t focus on this as a difficult bit of driving. An announcer’s voiceover tells us that he’s shattering the lap record. We see him shrug off competitor after competitor, a microcosm of what we’ve seen throughout this entire race, through this entire movie. No one can stop him. No matter what obstacles are put in front of them, he smashes through them.
And then the voiceovers and flashbacks. Oh my goodness. As Speed gets closer and closer to the finish, the most consequential bits of advice he’s received from everyone around him are brought to bear to give context to this moment. And much like Speed’s magnificant driving, this positivity smashes through Royalton’s speech about the “unassailable might of money.”
It all builds to this glorious crescendo when he’s passed the last two cars and everyone in the crowd is jumping up and down and screaming because he’s won. There’s nothing between him and the finish line, but he hasn’t actually crossed it yet. And I love that moment. It’s a moment a lot of other sports/competition-based movies don’t like to include because they want a photo finish. But it’s just perfect. It’s this beautiful crystallization of realized potential. And it’s stretched out just as long as it possibly can be, to let the euphoria just hit you in waves.
Fuck it. I don’t care. This is the best scene of any kind I’ve ever seen in a movie. Ever. Fight me.