The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Not Quite a Go: Speed Racer

Written by: Sal Crivelli, Special to CC2K

Image I have to admit, right off the bat: Speed Racer was a tough read. Not that the language used was more elusive than the normal text of any other script, but for some reason, this script was just murky, tough to get through. Not at all zippy and quick, the way one might expect a movie entitled Speed Racer to be.

Since the Wachowski Brothers hacked into the mainstream mindset with their blowout sci-fi flick The Matrix (let’s leave the other two out of this, shall we?), we’ve heard plenty of rumors that the Wachowski Brothers can pen a hell of a good script. If V for Vendetta is any indication, the pair seems perfectly capable of handling adaptations. After completion of Speed Racer, I’m not quite sure if their success rate is proven yet.

The story is only marginally more complex than a regular episode of the original anime series of the same name. We are introduced to the Racer family through the eldest brother, Rex Racer. He’s the best in the racing business. His father, Pops, builds fast cars and raises fast kids. We first meet Speed as a young boy who, in a current American classroom, would have probably been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. His best friend and future girlfriend Trixie establishes her spunk and blind devotion to Speed and his family almost immediately upon meeting her.

After a (melo)dramatic fight between father and eldest son, Rex goes off and gets himself killed in the biggest, most cut-throat “indie” race in the world: The Crucible. Speed grows up in the shadow of Rex’s shame and death, after implications are made that Rex took money from organized crime boss and race-fixer extraordinaire, “Cruncher.” The Racer family survives and moves forward. Mom and Pops have another son, Sprittle, and I guess a monkey? Chim-Chim the monkey (and Sprittles’ best friend) is one of the many direct carryovers from the show, and one of the biggest aspects of the show and movie that I personally thought was stupid.

Speed is just as good a racer as his brother was, if not better. A local race Speed competes in catches the attention of multi-millionaire “Mr. Remmington” (now “Mr. Royalton”): a ruthless businessman who gathers drivers and employs them to race his cars for him. Incidentally, he’s dirty and has been contributing to the tradition of “fixing” professional auto racing for many years. Speed’s devotion to his family and general “good guy nature” prevent him from accepting Remmington’s offer. Drama ensues, and we soon meet the “mysterious” Racer X. Speed is quickly swept up in the same sort of trouble his brother got into, trying to help the police and Inspector Detector to take down Cruncher and Remmington, and clean up auto racing for good.

This script could make a perfect summer movie (and I’m purposely avoiding the term “blockbuster”) if they have the right things going for them. Sadly, there’s not much they can really change about the script to make or break this movie. The story is fair. The characters are entirely one-dimensional, and the action is few and far-between. But even that’s not a real problem.

This movie is about 90% camp. Great phony lines, complete dedication and moral upstanding from the good guys, total jackassery and back-stabbing from the bad guys. The only thing holding this from 100% camp is the very occasional random points of drama and unnecessary “twists.”

For example, the true identity of Racer X is obvious to even the most casual observer from the original show. After the opening ten minutes, you know exactly who Racer X is. And yet, the movie goes out of its way to not only imply the true identity of Racer X, but then dedicates an entire scene to putting the genie back in the bottle. Finally, after the rousing finale of the movie, Racer X has a weird moment of introspection with Inspector Detector, and you wonder if the writer really expects us to care.

Perhaps the most striking aspects of the movie is the fine line the script hugs between being strongly beholden to the original material and “Americanizing” Speed Racer. I believe they accomplish both admirably, while still maintaining their Eastern ties with the inclusion of a minor story surrounding the Okamoto racing family.

One of my original gripes with this near-fanatical devotion to the cartoon is the inclusion of Chim Chim the monkey. Youngest Racer Sprittle has a pet monkey, which the Racer family dresses in clothing similar to their youngest son. It is a bizarre inclusion that has no real relevance, purpose, or explanation for being. They neither explain where Chim Chim comes from, nor make any apologies for it.

Upon further consideration, I see the justification for Chim Chim lies in the annoying existence of Sprittle. Sprittle is a little boy, about ten years old. Sadly, Sprittle has no friends other than the monkey. The monkey-friend allows Sprittle to have lines in the movie. Since the family only directly talks to Sprittle a handful of times, Sprittle has a good chunk of dialog explaining what Chim Chim is thinking, why he and Chim Chim are in trouble, and how he and Chim Chim feel about a particular situation. So the monkey allows Sprittle to have lines in the movie, and also satisfies that weird “If we have a monkey, the movie makes an extra eight million dollars” mentality Hollywood seems to have implemented over the past two decades.

Speed Racer is inoffensive and harmless. It’s also very much a kid’s movie, which is odd coming from the Wachowskis. I wouldn’t label it the Spy Kids of their career, but it’s certainly the tamest of their works. I find the racing scenes themselves thoroughly enjoyable, with true moments of tension and excitement, particularly in the finale. It’s not groundbreaking, by any means, but I’m certain that was not the intent. This is a fun summer movie whose cast will hopefully deliver the way it reads.