In my article on Doc Sportello I said that movies had essentially two options if they wanted to tell a compelling story: they can either be about someone going through a significant change (point A to point B) or they can be about someone refusing or failing to change while under enormous pressure. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is an immutable hero – a prime example of the second option for storytelling.
We’ve already discussed the convoluted schemes of the Speed Racer villain, Royalton. What we didn’t discuss was Speed Racer’s response to Royalton. Speed Racer starts the movie as a relatively simple hero – and I mean that in every regard. He comes from a family of racers, and racing is the only thing he is good at (it is implied that he would not have graduated High School without his girlfriend’s involvement). He loves his family and he loves his girlfriend. His moral compass is likewise simple and strong. He never ever questions right and wrong, and while this could be a terrible character trait Speed Racer’s inherent sense of good and evil happens to be spot on. In a lot of ways he is the paragon of heroism.
Royalton serves as a powerful contrast to Speed and his world view. Royalton says that the world isn’t black and white, that virtuous actions are not always repaid in kind, that sometimes the cheaters win and the good people lose. Royalton is right, too, and the movie doesn’t hide that fact from Speed Racer.
When confronted with Royalton’s offer, Speed Racer explains racing is a religion to his family. He tells a story about coming downstairs after Rex Racer, his older brother, left the house for good (Rex is another principled character who pays the ultimate price for sticking to his morals) and Papa Racer (John Goodman) is watching a recording of a famous race, the Grand Prix. Speed joins him, and though they know the end of the race already they start to scream in excitment as super star Ben Burns takes the final lap and the victory. It restores their relationship.
Only it wasn’t true. Royalton reveals that the race was fixed, and Speed Racer confronts Ben Burns later and learns that Royalton is, sadly, telling the truth. The world of Speed Racer deviates from other children’s movies with moral heroes because it isn’t a fair one that necessarily rewards its moral heroes. Royalton tells Speed Racer that the world he idolizes, the world of racing, is a broken one and that all racers are bought, that his brother was bought, that every race is fixed, and the movie confirms this.
Heart broken at his lowest point, Speed Racer tells Papa Racer that the Grand Prix was fixed. Papa Racer responds simply and gruffly: “I don’t believe that”. It’s a strange moment. Speed Racer knows for a fact (having been told definitively by the winner) that the race was fixed. But he doesn’t press the matter. He sees his father’s faith and love for the sport, and it reawakens in him something he never truly lost. It doesn’t matter to Speed if the races and sport of fixed. He will still always do what he feels is right. There isn’t a moment, before or after Royalton reveals the dark underside of racing, that Speed is tempted to take Royalton’s offer, because his morals overrule any dark truths about reality. He isn’t blind, but he isn’t taken in either.
Royalton is right in believing that the world is a more complicated place, but Speed Racer only knows one thing. He knows how to race, and he knows how to do it with a pure heart of gold, how to do it for his family and his friends and because he loves the sport. It isn’t hyperbole when Speed Racer claims that racing is a religion to his family. It is something that you can either choose to have faith in, or choose not to. Speed Racer starts the movie with faith in the goodness of racing, and though he faces some trials, he ends the movie with his faith just as intact. Though the ending is a little pat in the sense that Speed Racer does change the world to reflect his inner goodness, the overall message that goodness is not easy and not always rewarding is more complex than the movie gets credit for. Speed Racer’s adherence to his moral compass in a corrupt world is an inspiration.