I was wrong about Speed Racer

by Andrew Parker

Anyone who knows stalwart Canadian film programmer Peter Kuplowsky knows his love for the much maligned megabudget dud Speed Racer. A veteran of the Toronto film scene for quite some time, Kuplowsky would always find a way to defend the Wachowski siblings misunderstood 2008 adaptation of the cult cartoon series from the late 1960s. Boasting a pathetic 37 out of 100 on aggregate site Metacritic and making back only three quarters of its $120 million budget back worldwide, Speed Racer’s reputation as a colossal misfire was one Kuplowsky often had to work hard to overcome in terms of trying to get people to give the film a chance.

For the past ten years, Kuplowsky has hosted several screenings of Speed Racer throughout the city, often winning converts in the process. I should know. I was one of the skeptics who were dead certain that, regardless of Peter’s love for the film, Speed Racer was irredeemable, candy coated nonsense. I remember trying to watch it shortly after it was released on DVD, making it twenty minutes into the film, and immediately shutting it off. I could see why it failed, and I had no desire in that moment to engage with what I thought was childish, scatterbrained buffoonery made by filmmakers indulging in their own worst stylistic impulses.

And then I watched it in a theatre one of the times that Peter previously presented it, and I was enthralled by what the Wachowskis were able to accomplish. I was converted in that moment, and I lamented to myself that sometimes film critics can be horribly off base if they aren’t willing to give certain things a second chance or engage with seemingly difficult material on more than a basic, surface level. I was wrong about Speed Racer, and I am convinced that many critics were wrong about it from the start. Today, I believe it to be the second best film the Wachowskis made, right behind the first Matrix film and just ahead of their debut feature, Bound. And now that Kuplowsky is putting on his grandest screening of Speed Racer yet, just in time for the film’s 10th anniversary (happening Thursday, June 28th at Cinesphere), there’s no better chance to see the film as it was meant to be seen and with a newly open mind, far removed from the initial bad buzz that sunk the film before it even had a chance to float.

Speed Racer is about a lot of things, but just like the Fast and Furious franchise, it’s predominantly about family. Speed, played by Emile Hirsch, comes from a long racing lineage, driving a car designed and engineered by his Pops (John Goodman), and haunted by the memory of his late brother (Scott Porter), who passed away in a tragic, controversial accident. After making a name for on the track, Speed starts catching the eye of several potential race teams that could take his game to a professional level. When he turns down a lucrative, but soul destroying offer from wealthy tycoon Mr Royalton (Roger Allam) in favour of sticking by his family, Speed finds himself in a deadly corporate conspiracy to rig races. In his quest to clear his family’s good name and restore their financial status, Speed teams up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) to take down the evildoers ruining the sport he loves so much.

Immediately, it’s hard not to be stuck by the overwhelmingly dazzling visuals and effects. Speed Racer isn’t just a film that’s in a state of perpetual motion, but one of the most colourful films ever created. Eye popping lemon yellows, lime greens, and some of the bluest skies ever seen are on display here, and while there has clearly been some digital manipulation and correction, the film’s digital effects are seamlessly blended into the more practical set elements, which are equally stunning. The foreground and background depth of every shot is so rich and layered that even after seeing the film three times, I still find new details. A blend of futuristic imagination and retro cool, Speed Racer is unlike anything that has been made before or since.

Claims that the film’s colour palate and the Wachowskis kinetic energy lead to a film that looks like someone threw up a box of Mike and Ikes is way off base. Yes, Speed Racer throws a lot at the audience in a little amount of time, but the visuals are more fluid and balanced than critics at the time gave it credit for. There’s also far less frantic editing than detractors would have one believe. This isn’t some shaky nonsense that’s trying to seem gritty and realistic by placing the camera on what would appear to be a boat instead of a tripod, but a four course, streamlined, go for broke extravaganza courtesy of British cinematographer David Tattersall (who has a fascinatingly strange and varied career if you care to look it up). Scenes and lines of dialogue slip and slide around the screen like they would in the cartoon or a comic book. There have been a lot of defenders and detractors that compare Speed Racer’s style to that of a video game, but outside of race tracks that look like a Mario Kart designer’s dreams, I don’t see the comparison. No video game has ever been this sleek, and few films have ever taken such an ambitious approach to cinematography and editing.

One of the criticisms frequently levied against Speed Racer was that it had a complicated plot to go along with its already challenging visuals, which many deemed as a no-no when the film was clearly marketing towards a family friendly audience. There’s a subplot involving the mafia. There are the shenanigans caused by Speed’s precocious, tough talking, frequently sugar addled younger brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), and the family’s pet chimpanzee, Chim Chim. A romantic subplot between Speed and his childhood sweetie Trixie (Christina Ricci) often takes a backseat to the action, but is one of the most sweet and loving elements of the film. Both of the races that take up much of the film’s second half have their own story arcs, and a double cross carried off by a fellow driver sends things spinning off in yet another direction. The Wachowskis’ screenplay doesn’t have a standard three act structure, but more like a well constructed six act structure, which nicely recreates the feeling one might have from watching six episodes of the television show in a row.

On a technical level and a casting level, everyone involved commits fully to Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s bonkers, but fully realized and idiosyncratic vision, even if it means spouting lines of dialogue that are purposefully designed after how people would talk on a kiddie show. If there’s any weak link that’s hard for Speed Racer to overcome, it’s that Hirsch isn’t a particularly magnetic leading man, whisper speaking most of his lines to underscore Speed’s shyness in a somewhat misguided decision. Outside of Hirsch’s somewhat underwhelming lead performance, there isn’t a single frame of this film that isn’t bursting with creativity and imagination, and not a moment of it that feels half-assed or false.

But most importantly, Speed Racer is a film that doesn’t have a cynical or mean bone in its body. It’s desire to entertain, inspire, and uplift is as sincere as films come these days. There’s a geniality, inclusiveness, and warmth to the world created by the Wachowskis here, which probably struck many as a strange choice following the directors’ successes with The Matrix, Bound, and the screenplay for V for Vendetta. This was a film that no one knew the Wachowskis had in them, and when it arrived, audiences didn’t know quite what to do with it.

The labour of love that the Wachowski’s brought to the big screen is matched by the care and generosity that Peter Kuplowsky has put into his latest and most ambitious screening of Speed Racer (co-presented by the Laserblast Film Society that he helped to establish). He has gone the extra logistical and financial mile to rent one of the last remaining 70mm IMAX film prints of Speed Racer in existence and has booked the largest screen in the city to exhibit it. None of it comes cheap, and it has been a bit of an uphill battle, one that needed a crowd funding campaign to make it a reality. But instead of ever trying to recoup the costs, 100% of all profits from the Cinesphere exhibition of Speed Racer will go directly to the re:FOCUS Fund, a non-profit charity created by the screening’s other partner, Inside Out; a fund created to support LGBT women and non-binary filmmakers. It’s a perfect, charitable gesture that’s well in line with the spirit of the film and the filmmakers. I like to think that the character of Speed Racer would give an approving thumbs up to this venture.

There’s no better chance to give Speed Racer another chance, and it’s probably the last chance local audiences will ever be able to see the film projected on IMAX 70mm film. If you never saw it before, go in with a clear mind and an open heart. If you have and you previously didn’t like it, do the same, and if you still don’t like it, (A) you might be wrong, and (B) you can at least take comfort in knowing that your presence has done some good in the world.

Speed Racer screens at the Ontario Place Cinesphere in Toronto on Thursday, June 28, 2018 at 8:00pm. Advance online tickets can be purchased from this link.

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