Go Speed Racer Gone!!!
I missed this on Saturday because I put Metal Gear Solid 4 into the PS3 and when I looked past the TV next, it was 7:30pm. I missed this on Sunday because I continued playing MGS4 until I looked up again and noticed it was 4:30am. Monday was a no go but that was okay because Tuesday is my free day; my day to do things I need – like laundry – or want – like go to a restaurant, a coffee house and then a cinema. I was off to see Speed Racer.
Now I’m going to into this movie in detail and there are spoilers the size of your fist in this journal entry so I implore you that if you haven’t seen this movie, don’t waste the time reading my, in comparison, pitiful works praising the thing. Just know that I enjoyed it and head off to the nearest cinema before the damn thing closes.
For those still reading, I would offer the following advice: In stark contrast to the white for white meat, red for red rule; the Thomas Pinot Noir ’05 is a surprising accompaniment to Rush’s Cajun Spiced Calamari Tapas, with a sweet opener, tangy mid-tones and a pine-dry finish that’s like stoking the embers of a dying fire on your tongue, just to watch the sparks dance in the air. It is a red wine with citrus notes, which is perplexing enough but when that dry aftertaste runs along the spices left in your mouth, you’ll have to stop yourself reaching for the water just so you can savor the delicious sensation for a few moments more.
I would also add, and this is mainly for Neil’s benefit, that while Bailey’s Irish Cream can make a good liquor coffee, it really needs the whipped cream on top to make it taste any good whereas the white Sambucca needs no such additive and can be enjoyed as easily in creamy latte as it could in an espresso.
If that hasn’t dissuaded you from reading further, I can’t think of much else that can.
Speed Racer, make no mistake, is a movie aimed at the children. I would go further to say is that it is also a movie the family can enjoy. This should be as glaringly obvious as the kaleidoscopic backdrops and vibrant world that sets the scene of this film. What intrigued me; I won’t say surprised as it’s Larry and Andy Wachowski doing the writing duties and they’re one of the few who still believe, despite the poor reviews of Matrix Revolutions and V for Vendetta, that if you write intelligently and with good craftsmanship, people will come and watch your film, was the considerable degree of writing skill used in which the story was told. Employing non linear storytelling, establishing a world where you learn just enough to understand the motivation behind the racing obsession and writing compelling characters, each with their own perfectly sensible reasons insofar as they rationalize it to themselves, each other and the audience for doing and acting as they do and are – it should come as little shock, and yet it came with a force that left me quivering, that this movie about racing is a journey of a boy becoming a man.
The opening surprised me in that I wasn’t flung straight into the racing as the trailers had constantly done. The slow rhythm of the music going up in gears at the Warner Brothers logo had me primed for action before the Silver Productions logo hit the screen. The movie makes you wait, teases you just a little longer as Speed Racer himself sits in brightest locker room in the world, accelerator foot tapping with urgent need to move and move fast. You get excerpts of Speed’s academic abilities, rather lack thereof as he pictures himself racing in a scene literally out of a child’s imagination while his mother suffers through the lecturing tone of his teacher describing why it isn’t her fault that she can’t do her job and educate the lad.
Then you get onto the track…
If this is the life you get to live when you’re old enough to drive a car then education can eat my dust! We move past Days of Thunder and we move past Blues Brothers in terms of both racing and destruction and are treated to a flashing display of art that hooked me as surely as it did the first time I saw the preview. There are going to be a lot of people who, if they aren’t already, will say one of, or if they are a special kind of ignorant, two things:
1: There’s no sense of danger cause it’s all computer animated and not at all realistic.
2: I couldn’t make out any detail of the race. What am I supposed to be watching?
You watch it all. Don’t just focus on what the Mach 5 is doing, even though it’s the only white car without any pimping light and color on the track. Watch everything because it’s meant to be seen as a whole. It’s as intricate a design as a landscape and it shines like a diamond. If you want to see it in detail, watch it again.
In the opening scene we get it all. Speed’s obsession with racing and his lionization of his other brother, Rex; Pops’ love for both family and racing which are one and the same; Mom’s love for her boys, both Pops, Rex, Speed and Spritle and by extension, of racing; Rex’s moment of fame and how he fell, both in racing history and in his father’s eyes; Trixie’s love for Speed, the family and racing. I’m probably making this sound more saccharine than it should, but it just fits together so very well.
Oh! None of this took place by the way: Trixie pines hopelessly as racing obsessed Speed ignores her for the thrill of the race, only to realize that what he loves is closer than he’s known. None of that shit! Trixie and Speed know how each other feels and it’s really only the antics of Spritle and Chim Chim that get in the way. Which only happens once, and a bit at the end as well.
Victory for the Racer family means pancakes. It also means corporate sponsors circling the house and looking to scoop up Speed to drive their supercharged advertisements to higher profit. The one who gets through the front door is Arnold Royalton, CEO of Royalton Industries, played by the malevolent Roger Allam of V for Vendetta fame and Goddamn this man is the devil himself! He practically admits in one scene a bit later as he reveals just what he has in mind for Speed and his family, Speed calls him the devil and just as he’s about to answer, he’s interrupted by the arrival of a security guard. When he turns to look, I swear those eyes are pitch-black!
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Royalton manages to convince the Racer’s to tour his facilities and see what their life could be like with money and power backing them. Segways get used a lot here and I know it saddens Dad just a little to see that the only application they have is for advertising “The Future” to audiences in sci-fi movies. Royalton paints a compelling picture, even more apt considering the lavish displays of color on the backdrops but it isn’t enough to convince Speed or the rest of the Racers that this is a sure bet. A week of thinking and talking with both Trixie and Mom sees Speed return to Royalton to politely decline and now we can talk about the devil.
This is, frankly, one of the best executed scenes not only in this movie, but also in just about anything I’ve seen on a big or small screen. Speed tells Royalton of how Rex’s savage exploits on the track killed Pops little by little until Rex’s death nearly dragged his father down with him. After a year of swearing off racing, Speed catches Pops watching an old film of one of the first Grand Prix’s and even though you could bet that both of them had watched it dozens of times before, the race sweeps both of them up as they cheer for the winner in a death defying showdown of steering, skill and steel. This is when the mask slides of Royalton until it’s a noxious and unrecognizable puddle in his lap and what happens next is something that really does require its own paragraph.
Royalton tells the other side of the race. Of how five men, champions of the automotive industry combined their efforts through the competition of racing. How it dragged audiences around the world into the glory of high performance sports cars and how the stock in each company moved as fast as the cars on the track. The way Royalton describes it is all fan-based, calling it the same way that Speed described the first Grand Prix. He tells it like a football play, reveling in the strategy, the twisted genius of capitalism that reveals that all racing; this pasttime that drivers have died for, that Rex has died for, that drove his family, that shaped an entire world; is fixed.
Watching it, I got pulled out of the movie by the sheer craftsmanship on display. Royalton’s character complexities are just stunning to watch. But it wasn’t until I was waiting for the train home that I realized something I’d missed during the first realization: Not only had this scene given depth to Royalton’s character, it also laid exposition about not only the fixed races and motives of the evil men of industry, but also the history of racing and its effect on this world. There are THREE LAYERS of information here and two of them are PURE EXPOSITION and the reason I’m writing these in capitals is to convey the nightmare that writers have when it comes time to “lay pipe” for the audience so that they understand the plot or character or setting. It is, frankly, an accomplishment in and of itself and you could pay $8.50, see just that scene and walk away with a better appreciation for what good writing looks and sounds like and the firm knowledge that it was money well spent.
Non linear storytelling is something I adore when done right and after what I’ve just described, you better believe it was done as exactly that. Royalton calls Speed Racer’s future in the Fuji Island race that he won’t even finish and we get to see how chillingly right he is, not just about what will happen, but how much of a grip he has on the sport of racing. It’s a scene that just hits you hard in the gut as the Racer family gets hammered not just with defeat and destruction, but also as Royalton sues the Racer family and demonizes them in the press, just cause he can. It’s about this time we’re introduced to Racer X, Inspector Detector and the Mexican cock-fighting equivalent of racing.
Inspector Detector, responsible for Rex abandoning his family, approaches that same family for Speed’s help in uncovering Royalton’s schemes. Teamed with Racer X and the heir-apparent of Togokahn Industries, another racing engine developer and rival to Royalton Industries, Speed follows in Rex’s footsteps, sneaking behind his father’s back and participates in the Casa Cristo race that spans six time zones and three continents of mad gadgetry mayhem. Spiked balls on chains, catapults that fling beehives and cobras, wheel spikes and mallets are not just weapons; they are opportunities and are thinly veiled by the two slimy commentators who watch with glee as bits of car litter the race track. Fortunately Speed, Racer X or Togokahn aren’t among them because then we get to see “Racing-Fu” in action. Watching this is both edge of your seat thrilling and laugh out loud hilarious but also pay attention to the music. The notion that these cars are dancing on the track is reinforced as the modern derivative of the 60’s cartoon theme is replaced by cheeky tango number.
The Racer family cotton on to what Speed has done, (with Trixie’s help) and the next two scenes that follow is the reason I maintain that John Goodman should play “The Dad” in every film from now till Doomsday. We’re talking about a guy who did this for seven or so seasons of Roseanne so he’s got this “Being the father” down! He brings out everything, pride, fear, anger, and when he brings fear and anger, I don’t think there are many out there who couldn’t see, just for a moment, what their own father was like the day he feared for his child’s life. The dichotomy of trying to express how scared he is, his anger at losing another son to the darker side of racing and how he bottles this up by going off to work on the car is just acting genius but it’s also one half of what makes him “The Dad”.
The other half is this: He is fucking huge! There are, doubtless, people who could match or best John Goodman in a fight but I’ll be damned if I can think of one cause one thing you always remember about your Dad is just how damn big he is and how easily he could break anyone who threatened those he loves. And John Goodman does just that when the ninjas try to assassinate Tomaguchi, Racer X and Speed. Togokahni gets poisoned, Racer X deals efficiently and ruthlessly with his ninja but it’s when Pops sees Speed fighting for his life that you realize that no ninja, pirate or even Chuck Norris himself could beat John Goodman when his kid’s life is on the line. It’s choreographed with more humor than I’m writing but trust me it’s not hard to imagine Pops turning this ninja into a red blot in black pajamas.
Togokahn’s out of the picture and the team is down a driver. Yet we open on three cars dodging the last of the headhunter racers while Trixie’s chopper with the Racer family watches overhead. Meanwhile Royalton, infuriated at the lack of success the ninja had, has his henchmen go after Togokahn sister. Which, as it turns out, is the brother who has overcome the poison, and gets a chance to show off his martial arts skills on the hired goons who are surprised that dame is a dude in a dress. So it’s the sister driving the car? Nope, she’s piloting Trixie’s chopper. Instead its Trixie doing the driving and it turns out she’s got some game, managing to hold her own against all comers until they reach a leg of the race that is off-camera. Here a recovered Togokahn switches back with Trixie but not before Royalton’s mooks try to off the Racer and Togokahn familes in one hail of bullets. This brings us to the next fight and to the next joke for kids but really for the adults.
I haven’t mentioned the chimpanzee so much. Mainly because I don’t think you can write about a chimpanzee and expect it to be as funny as seeing it on the big screen. Pratchett is, of course, the exception that proves the rule though everyone would argue that an orangutan is the only simian that lends itself to prose rather than pictures. Spritle, who seems to be the one who looks after the chimp, makes reference to “Chim Chim Cookies” and it doesn’t take much to think about what he’s actually referring to. Actually it doesn’t take anything at all because what turns the tide of this battle is something with the consistency of nutty melted chocolate hitting the head goon in the face. I had the “pleasure” of two kids in the rows ahead of me asking if it was in fact chocolate that the mook was scraping off his face with abhorrent disgust and the mother silently thanking God above for the impressionability of children as she whispers “Yes. That was the monkey’s chocolate”, hoping that she wouldn’t have to explain that the delightfully cavorting chimp either shat in his shiny blue shorts or into his cupped hand before slinging it into the eyes and mouth of someone who, I guess, deserved it. Those kids are in for the biggest laugh of their lives in about four to eight years time.
The race continues as the Racer team has to make up ground lost to smacking around mooks and we arrive at the portion of the track that all platform gamers will realize with tired inevitability as “The Ice Level”. What sweetens this sour development is that this was the same track that claimed Rex’s life about ten years ago. Speed is conscious of this and it barely slows him as he handles the track and the last headhunter before allowing Togokahn to take the lead, win the race, save his company and ensure that he’ll testify against Royalton.
Something I should mention: Even the racing henchman has depth and pathos. He’s been the organ-grinder’s monkey for eight years, making sure that no one with even a hint of talent buggered up the racing fix by having the gall to win on merit and skill. He’s finally been promised that it’s his turn to win, only to have that dream dashed when Speed, Racer X and Togokahn turn up. See, he has to make certain that Togokahn dies so that the company he represents will lose stock, making it easy for Royalton to complete his monopoly on the racing engine industry. But this is one henchman who’s had enough and dares not only to kill our heroes, but also win the race himself.
So at this point it’s all looking good. Togokahn has won, he’ll testify, racing becomes about the skill, talent and, dare I say it, “drive” to win. Not so as it turns out it was all a ruse to bump the company’s stock so that when Royalton inevitably attempts his hostile takeover, this sweet plum becomes a bitter pill as he has to pay out a small fortune to swallow. All of Speed’s efforts were for naught and evil triumphs. Again, not so as Togokahn’s sister, disgusted at the dishonorable attitudes of her family, takes the prize – an invitation to participate in the Grand Prix – and delivers it into Speed’s hands. This follows two particularly moving scenes where Pops, having learned from his mistakes with Rex, realizes that Speed is a man and they speak as men do, rather than shout him down, which hasn’t had the best track record so far in this film. The other scene is Speed, frustrated at Togokahn as well as Racer X as he’s convinced the mysterious driver is his long lost brother, confronts Racer X on the track before discovering the man behind the mask is just as unrecognizable when you can look him in the eye.
On the heels of Racer X’s unmasking and a heart to heart with Pops, Speed takes up the invitation and the Racer family set about building in record time, the Mach 6! The Grand Prix commences after Royalton tries every bureaucratic trick to disqualify Speed and puts out an open bounty on Speed’s head. I won’t go into this much further as the outcome is best left a mystery, even in this spoiler-heavy review, but I do need to mention something:
Above, I mentioned the irony of a racing story being a journey and it isn’t until after the Casa Cristo race and part of the way through the Grand Prix that I realized that I had sat here and watched Speed grow from the ten year old boy into the man racing with something to prove. It was an incredibly moving moment and I put it down to the Wachowski’s brothers’ god-like talent in telling a story. Character motivated plot, all in a world unlike anything seen since maybe Dick Tracey, and even then without the tongue-in-cheek approach of a comic/cartoon world. Science Fiction, such as it is in this case, is never about writing about the future, it’s writing about the present and the story of a boy becoming a man, a father’s pride in his son and a man who lives with his choices, for good or ill, is something that could only become fantasy when we start cloning our offspring.
See this movie. Though at this paragraph, it may just be largely redundant, but see it anyway as there are things I’ve left out in the hopes you get the same joy I did.