Get Sam or me in a room talking film long enough and we’re eventually going to start to extol the many virtues of Speed Racer (2008, The Wachowskis) until the cows come home. I seriously cannot overstate how much I love this movie. I love it so much I accidentally rewatched the whole 2 hours and fifteen minute long movie while trying to find one quote for this review. Bright, beautiful, campy, exhilarating, and absurdly, impossibly, unnecessarily complicated. Speed Racer is a movie for children who like racing and bright colors, but for whatever reason the plot involves a massive amount of convoluted corporate intrigue that is absolutely impossible to figure out in just one viewing.
I’m going to assume, for this article, that you have seen or know Speed Racer. If you don’t, look up the plot on Wikipedia. Or better yet, go watch it first. Seriously, I’ll wait. It’s so beautiful and colorful and has six flashbacks from four different characters in the first fifteen minutes (see, very complicated, and none of those flashbacks even have to do with the convoluted plot thread that I’m about to discuss). But don’t feel bad if you have no idea what’s going on. It took me five or six viewings to actually figure out what the hell the corporate plot was.
Let’s parse out what actually drives the plot of Speed Racer. Essentially, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) needs to defeat Royalton (the major villain played by Roger Allam – he is very rich and has a permit to fly low over the city [only six granted each year!]) because Royalton loves money and thinks that’s what racing is about. Speed, alternatively, loves racing just for racing. That would probably be enough of a plot to drive the whole movie. But Royalton himself is embroiled in a many-tiered plan that plays out almost entirely in the background. It is Royalton’s plot that drives the action of the film – Speed’s plot would not could not exist without it.
When we first meet Royalton, he is interested in bringing Speed Racer into his elite racing team fold (he also tries to buy Susan Sarandon’s pancake recipe). He wants Speed to go big with his company, while Pops Racer (John Goodman) doesn’t trust big corporations. And Pops is right, Royalton is corrupt in so many ways!
Royalton is involved with a Mob Boss named Cruncher Block (John Benfield) who is introduced torturing Taejo Togokahn (Rain), for some betrayal that we never ever hear about. Taejo is apparently in the employ of Royalton (he could testify against him), a racer, and also the son of Royalton’s rival, Tetsuo Togokahn, who is apparently important but barely in the movie at all. Taejo is saved by a mysterious man named Racer X (Jack from Lost), who works for the Inspector Detector and is trying to bring Royalton down.
Meanwhile, Royalton meets with Mr. Musha of Musha Motors. They have this lovely incomprehensible exchange:
Royalton: The New GRX has a supercharged Inner-Positive Transponder and will be capable of speeds in excess of 800 kilometers per hour.
Mr. Musha: If such a car were to win the Grand Prix this year, one would expect the demand for Transponders would increase dramatically.
Royalton: One would expect.
Mr. Musha: And if a single company gained control of all transponder foundries in the world, one might expect that company to do very well for itself.
Royalton: You know what I want, and I know for the last few years you’ve been trying to buy out your main rival Tetsua Togokahn. The question is, can we make a deal?
Mr. Musha: Deliver Togokahn and the price of that Transponder factory is yours.
This scene led to my confusion my first few viewings, and I’m going to break down why:
- Mr. Musha is an entirely new character. We have no idea who he is, or what his relationship to Royalton is. We have never seen him (and, side note, barely ever see him again).
- Tetsua Togokahn hasn’t appeared on screen yet. It has also been a long time since Taejo appeared, and his last name is only maybe mentioned in the scene he appears in. The audience would have to remember that he is named Togokahn, but that it isn’t Tetsua. Also to confound things, in the mob it seems like Taejo works for Royalton, but here it is revealed he is the son of Musha’s rival and maybe not working for Royalton? Still pretty confused by that honestly.
- While I studied under Jan Fleischer in Prague he often cited a quote from his book (paraphrasing): “A movie’s plot should not be ruined if a person in the theater decides to open a bag of chips and a line is missed”. The point is, there is a lot of new information said at rapid pace in this scene. One need only miss a single line, and the whole thing falls apart. Most of the information in this scene is never reiterated.
- For a long time, I did miss that line about Musha and Togokahn being rivals, and thought that Musha worked for Togokahn. That may sound like I’m lumping Asian characters together (and that probably has something to do with it – full admission: for a while I thought Musha was Togokahn) but bare in mind that in this scene they never ever mention Musha’s name or the the name of his company.
- They are speaking absolute gibberish. What is a transponder? Which cars already have them?
- To top it all off, this information is conveyed to us in a severely dark room as silhouettes of both parties’ heads continuously wipe across the screen. Constantly displaced spatially it is difficult to tell who is cutting what deal about what.
- What does Musha gain in this deal? He loses his transponder foundries? And what… Royalton gives him Togokahn’s company? Is that the deal? I think it is. We never ever see the conclusion of that.
Regardless, Royalton moves ahead with his attempts to buy out Togokahn. To be able to afford Togokahn, Royalton needs to lower their stock value, which requires him defeating them in the Casa Cristo 5000 (a team-based race necessary to qualify for the Grand Prix). Taejo Togokahn will be racing with a car using a Togokahn motor – if he wins, Togokahn’s price goes up. In an attempt to make sure that happens, Speed Racer and Racer X race alongside Taejo (Speed Racer at this point aware of Royalton’s dastardly deeds – Taejo has promised to testify in court against him if he wins the race). Royalton hires a series of headhunters and also the mob to make sure that Team Togokahn loses. But they don’t. Team Togokahn wins! Tetsua Togokahn tells Royalton the price to buy Togokahn Motors has doubled. Royalton says that’s outrageous and he refuses to buy it. Just like Speed and Racer X planned, Royalton can’t afford Togokahn, won’t get that foundry, and is defeated.
Nope. Royalton just goes ahead and buys it anyway.
Which really is one of the most confusing parts of the whole movie. Even though you find out that Togokahn was scamming Racer X and Speed Racer and the whole crew, and always intended to sell… Royalton’s plan was utterly unnecessary. He could (and does) buy Togokahn regardless of the price hike. In fact, he would have spent less money if he had just bought them before the Casa Cristo. If he has the cash to buy them at double the price, why risk the price going up in the first place? Whatever.
This buy out, presumably, puts him into business with Musha Motors, because out of nowhere Musha shows back up and holds martini glasses knowingly at Royalton.
At this point in the film it’d seem that Royalton has it made. He’s got his foundries, made friends with Musha, and apparently has control of pretty much everyone racing in the Grand Prix. The only person not on Royalton’s pay roll is Speed Racer, who enters the race using Taejo’s ticket (Taejo doesn’t have to race, having already raised the stock of his company). And Royalton decides that Speed Racer cannot win.
Only in the course of writing this article have I discovered why that’s important. Royalton, having received the foundry from Musha Motors, needs a car with an Inner-Positive Transponder to win for the price of Transponders to go up. This motivation requires the audience remembering a technobabble line said once an hour and a half ago. If they don’t recall that line, Royalton seems like a raging lunatic.
But, in fact, he seems like a raging lunatic anyway, because Racer Motors will never be a competitor to Royalton – Pop Racer has no interest in expanding his operation. Royalton has nothing to gain and everything to lose. But he goes for it anyway.
And Royalton gets caught cheating. Speed Racer is able to expose that Royalton’s golden boy Cannonball Taylor has equipped his car with a device called a “spearhook” – a device that tethers one car to another.
Let’s break down, real quick, how idiotic the spearhook is:
- First off, the fact that cheating is even a thing in these races is nuts, because blowing up other people’s cars is totally cool. Only you can only do it in specific ways.
- What the hell is the benefit of a spearhook? It just tethers your car to another car – you both lose control in equal measures and neither of you is able to get ahead.
- Of all the forms of cheating that we see throughout the film the spearhook is pretty easily the least offensive and most discreet. At one point someone launched a bee hive from a catapult and it was cool. At another point in the movie, one of the drivers takes out a pistol while on camera and fires on Speed Racer. People see it, and the announcers commentate on it, but it is dismissed as some wacky misadventure in the mountains and shrugged off.
But, no, it’s the spearhook and not the pistol that people take offense at. And because Cannoball cheated, Royalton goes to jail.
And it’s absolutely marvelous. The movie moves along at such with so much hallucinogenic kaleidoscopic color and noise that the plot doesn’t have to really carry its own weight. But whatever realm of manic chaos this movie was birthed from induced the Wachowskis to not only attempt a plot, but to attempt one as overwhelmingly intense and silly as everything else in the movie, and it’s all the better for it.
Book – The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon, 1966) is a fun complex plot in a very different style. But I’ll admit that’s stretching it. I guess the closest I come in regards to style itself would be the Discworld (Terry Pratchett), series, which also has fun with relatively good people navigating a bizarre and more morally gray world (though, like in Speed Racer, good always triumphs!).
TV – This is a weird one, but I was scrolling through my list of TV shows I’ve watched and was trying to think of something that was as confident in it’s hammy over the top performance and threads, and I’d actually have to suggest Comedy Bang! Bang!, which at the very least shares Speed Racer’s commitment to over the top performance, if not their complex plots. The other obvious possibility would be Adventure Time – but I guess I don’t watch as many shows that enjoy hamming it up as I thought I did.
Movie – It’s a totally different film, but one that also packs a massive plot that in some ways suggests it shouldn’t be followed: Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson). It feels like a bit of cheat since it is based on a Pynchon novel and we already covered that, but it actually holds a lot of parallels with Speed Racer. Like Speed Racer (the character) Doc gets sucked way deep into a plot that sort of happens around him. Also like Speed Racer, Doc is a good man who makes a decision to do good because that’s something that makes sense to him. Hey, maybe that’s an article right there!