I’ve already written two articles about the 2008 masterpiece Speed Racer. On a whole, they’ve been poorly received. Not a whole lot people have watched Speed Racer. Not a whole lot of people care about Speed Racer. But today, on Speed Racer’s tenth birthday, I will once more write an ode to Speed Racer explaining why it is (even, admittedly, to my own surprise) one of my favorite movies of all time.
Recently Sam turned me onto a killer podcast: “Screw It, We’re Just Going to Talk About Spider-man.” It’s a truly hilarious podcast dedicated to breaking down the original Steve Ditko and Stan Lee run of Spider-man, and most of the humor of the podcast derives from the hosts’ clear joy in the ridiculousness of the comics they’re discussing. While discussing an issue about the Enforcers, a ridiculous batch of supervillains with questionable-at-best power, they compare the Enforcers to family. (Bare with me, I’m paraphrasing here): “They’re ridiculous and we can make fun of them, but it’s like family. If anyone else makes fun of them I get defensive and am like ‘get out of here’”. That may be a pretty radical paraphrase, but I swear it’s the sentiment. They also frequently highlight the level of craftsmanship both Lee and Ditko bring to the ridiculous proceedings.
My history with Speed Racer began when my pal Jesse began to talk it up before it’s release. To me, it looked badly done: unrealistic looking CGI, a goofy plot… nothing I wanted to see, in short, and I remember only ridiculing him as he tried to convince me and my other friends to see it (sorry Jesse, you were right). Early on into my friendship with Sam I became aware that he also loved the film. I was a little in to film school and, having cleared the hurdle of being a super serious high schooler and probably even more super serious freshman (super serious, here, in regards to “what is art?”), had finally begun to expand my horizons of what could make a good film. Goofy CGI? Off the wall story? Okay, those are things I’d come to appreciate some more (after all, isn’t half the appeal of all great films from Film Noir to There Will Be Blood that they’re a little goofy?). I watched Speed Racer and was forced to eat crow. What a fantastic film. I’ve watched it probably ten times since then, and it’s got to rank up there as one of my favorite flicks ever.
First, there’s the absurdity. I’ve written before about the insanely unnecessary and convoluted big business plot that drives the film, but that’s just one of many, many examples. Take, for example, the random declaration that Speed Racer “doesn’t have a car for the Grand Prix.” What? What about the car he’s been racing in all movie? It’s never addressed. The absolutely bonkers double reveal of Racer X (it is at first heavily hinted that he is Speed’s dead brother Rex only for the film to reveal he is not, only for the film to reveal way later that actually he is but he had plastic surgery to become Jack from LOST). The equally uncommented on proclamation that “he made his choice” and cannot ever return to his family and tell them he is still alive. Why? The gangsters drive around in an office that’s in the back of a truck (this serves no practical purpose). There’s a chimpanzee in the movie (he also serves no narrative purpose). As the “Screw It, Spidey” guys say these are all things I love to incessantly harp on and tease out with friends who love the film, but if anyone ever tries to frame them as things that detract from the movie I will go to bat for all of them, because no matter how little sense they make to me I love each and every one of those insane decisions.
Because they’re truly great decisions, backed up by truly masterful craft. Why do the gangsters drive around in the back of a truck? Because it looks awesome, and leads to a fantastic fight sequence in which Racer X’s car jumps over rockets fired at him from the truck’s engine. There’s a frame where the background is dyed red, and it looks just perfect. The Wachowskis know exactly what they’re doing. The bizarre narrative makes everything so much more fun and funny, and those inconsistencies and oddities so clearly come from a genuine place. The jokes are all at first glance ridiculous, but also clearly intentionally so. There are ninjas (cool beans). The gangsters pay off the Army themed racing team in ca$h, and the Viking themed team in furs (which they are super excited about). The movie is well-aware its ridiculous aspects are all humorous, but they rarely draw attention to them, instead treating them with full sincerity. When Speed Racer claims the only thing he knows how to do is drive, and is dead serious about it (the movie emphasizes his intellectual shortcomings time and time again), it’s a fantastic joke that also packs an emotional punch. He doesn’t know if driving will solve anything, but it’s literally the only thing he knows how to do, and he is so pure he has to try. Even Racer X’s inexplicable proclamation that he can never return to his family packs a wallop. It’s ludicrous, but it’s delivered so earnestly by both Matthew Fox and treated so seriously by the movie we buy it.
Which is to say nothing of the visuals. They’re harder to write about, and if I did it’d just be a laundry list of incredible shots that would go on for pages (and pages and pages) but you really have to go watch the movie. What a younger Chris mistook for shoddy CGI is actually a daring otherworldly look. Nothing else looks like this movie not because of bad craftsmanship, but because no one else has been daring enough. The opening of the Casa Cristo, where they race between pillars. The ice tunnels. Any shot that transitions through space while being continuous. Absolutely any explosion. The zoetrope at the beginning of the Grand Prix. All geniusly inventive visuals, and that’s just scratching the surface.
The other night while discussing “Screw It, Spidey” with Sam I lamented what I viewed as a loss of pulp fiction. There are still a lot of things I find fun in many forms of media, but there isn’t anything like that original run of Spider-man comics, nothing like the truly pulpy Western and Noir and early Sci-fi novels of the 60s and 70s. Marvel movies are perhaps similar in that they are about nothing except the plot and they have no goal other than entertainment, but there’s so much money rolled up into them they inherently can’t have a throw anything at the wall and see what sticks approach. They’re too manufactured, and while they have expert craftsman at the helm they don’t have the genuine weirdness of a singular lunatic voice. Speed Racer exists as a weird hybrid of the two (see also: Hellboy 2 which I rewatched last week). It has money to really achieve the outlandish goals, but no one was paying attention enough to pump the brakes, and so it feels cartoonish, otherworldly and most importantly entirely sincere in its motivation.