One of my many problems with the digital film revolution is in how so many of the filmmakers working within it don’t really seem to have any grasp to meld the digital possibilities of the medium with proper storytelling techniques. Too many of them seem to be too impressed with the digital toys that everything else suffers; you can do almost anything with a movie’s visuals now, but it seems that you can’t teach technicians or second-rate filmmakers how to use those tricks in order to serve a story. This is what separates the Warkowski Brothers (and they’re still brothers, or at least are still credited as such) from most everyone else is that that they get it, they understand how to take the tools at hand and use them to their advantage and make a fairly flimsy story sparkle. SPEED RACER works (and works well) because the visuals and the story go hand-in-hand in a surprisingly effective fashion that even jaded, seen-it-all and sick of FX viewers like myself can appreciate. It’s an explosion of color and technology that still has a heart behind it that’s the cinematic equivalent of a big ice cream sundae with all the fixing’s and is pretty useless to resist.
One thing about SPEED RACER that particularly impressed me was how the Warkowskis make a specific point by emphasizing character in the opening act. We start with a big race, which is a pretty predictable way of going about things, but the race itself serves only as a manner of telling the background not just of Speed Racer, but also his entire family. We see constant flashbacks to Speed’s childhood, his relationship with his brother Rex and future girlfriend Trixie with the race itself being secondary. It sets the tone very well, letting us know what to expect on a visual and storytelling level, so by the first reel’s end we’re settled into it and can get with the rest of the film and into what story there is. The film doesn’t go much into the story department after this – it’s pretty much just plot from here on in – but it gets the job done very well. The plot is something that doesn’t stray too far from the show (Speed and Racer X work together to expose corruption in the racing game) but that’s OK because this is a film that doesn’t depend too much on such slight things as a plot. That would otherwise be meant as an insult, but SPEED RACER is one of the few films of this type that gets it right. The Warkowskis seem to working off of a very specific design for what they want to achieve (I wouldn’t quite use the word “vision”, but design is perfectly fine in this case) and that’s something akin to a live-action anime or video game. Again, I could care less about such things, but I did here, and I think it’s in part because the Warkowskis have their hearts in it and also because they’ve cast the film extremely well and the roles are all played with just the right tone to make it all work. The proper word to use here is sincerity, as all of the major good guy roles are played with a significant amount of it, and the bad guy roles (with special mention going out to lead villain Roger Allam, who’s just great) are appropriately over the top. Everyone is just right for their parts, but I can’t let it pass without signaling out John Goodman, who is absolutely wonderful as Speed’s dad, Pops. The best scene in the film is his, as he recalls watching a classic race with his son, and if there’s one person in the movie who is able to take his character and make them more flesh and blood than possible, it’s Goodman, and he owns much of SPEED RACER. He hasn’t been this good in a movie since THE BIG LEBOWSKI, which is saying a lot.
Trust me; I’m very surprised by how much I enjoyed SPEED RACER. Those of you out there who are going to brush this one off as Hollywood blockbuster crap will be missing something unique: A technological blockbuster with some heart. It’s a most enjoyable movie going experience and it deserves a shot. It’s not the second coming of cinema, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it has any right to be.