Reasons to Watch Speed Racer

The Speed Racer movie fascinates me. Not because it’s a good movie – it’s not – but because it’s made by people just smart enough to do interesting things and just dumb enough to make some very simple mistakes. As a writer, this is a combination that keeps me looking at something, wondering what the hell happened and why it all falls apart.

I’ll be honest for a second – Speed Racer should be the kind of glorious failure in the style of films like Southland Tales. The Watchowski Brothers remake has a lot going for it in terms of a really strong aesthetic, a willingness to be stylized rather than naturalistic, and a moderately strong cast. It was never going to be a successful film because the choices they were making ran up against the basic demand for pseudo-realism in cinema, but at the very least it was ambitious and willing to take chances.

Sadly, this is coupled with the kind of bone-headed narrative decisions that make it a fairly mundane failure rather than failed attempt at genius. Which is why I’d probably recommend people who are interested in writing should watch it, if only to see why certain things don’t work, narratively speaking. Things to pay attention to, when watching Speed Racer as a learning experience:

1) They Haven’t Decided what the film is about.
Not entirely true, since on one level they’ve got this down – Speed Racer is about futuristic cars and remaking a cartoon. But underneath that, on the thematic level, this film is overburdened with themes and it handles none of them particularly well. On one hand it’s a personal story about Speed living up to his brother’s legacy, on another it’s a story about the individual against big business, and on another hand its the thematic equivalent of Star Wars where man conquers the machine through the all-knowing power of the force (or, in this case, listening to the car and driving on instinct). There’s no problem with a story being these things, but it’s never all of these things at the same time – each theme gets set up seperately and independently, taking far to long to integrate.

2) Flashback Mania
In the opening ten minutes of the film, we have about six flashbacks. All these flashbacks undercut the speed and action of the opening race, but most of them add very little to tension. In SF we call this info-dumping and it’s something to be used with caution, but in the film it’s the very literal equivalent of stopping a story to insert “as you know, Bob, Speed’s older brother was once a great racer himself, but he came to a bad end…” over and over again. This would probably be bearable – not good, but bearable – if it was setting something up, but at the end of the race and the flashback sequence we’re given a new problem…

3) The Film has Two First Acts
There’s a structure to the first act of a story – the world is established, something threatens the status-quo, the hero walks away from it, things get worse and people keep saying “fix it”, and finally the protagonist is forced to address the issue. The act basically ends at the moment the decision is made to go and deal with the problem.

Speed Racer does this twice, and really  this is where a lot of the problems mentioned above become unforgivable  – the combination of opening race and story sets up one set of narrative expectations (two, actually, since they cram the background on Trixi and Speed’s relationship in there, rather unnecessarily). The conflict is all established – Speed wants to live up to his older brother’s memory, but also needs to understand why Rex Racer walked out. He relived Rex’s departure, sees the effect it has on his family, gets told not to listen to the gossip that follows. He makes a decision – not to break his brother’s record in the race, to limit himself from surpassing his brother’s memory. We get to a nice point where things are ready to move forward, and….

Then the movie starts all over again. We literally get up the following day and a whole new set of conflicts are introduced –  Speed is being courted by big business sponsors, the big business vs individual is set up, and although there’s some real tangential links to the first story it feels like the start of something else entirely (although this, too, is cut short when the seemingly-nice-big-businessmen reveals himself to be corporate-scum-who-hates-individuals at the end of this sequence).

There’s a notable shift in the way the whole film works after you get past the first half-hour or so – basically, as soon as they hit the rally race everything gets wound together, and things don’t start falling apart again until the very end when they have to end the film three or four times to get everything wrapped up. This is basically one of those signs that you’re layering in too many metaphors and themes at once, and they really could have done something extraordinary if only they’d focused things on one story and hooked everything else in as a sub-theme instead.

4) They didn’t adapt the style to the medium
The Speed Racer cartoon is layered in goofiness and weird stylistic choices – some parts are serious, some parts are cartoony to the extreme. Largely, the difference comes down the presence of Chim Chim and Spritle in the scene. In making the film they’ve tried to keep this stylistic approach, but what works okay in a half-hour television cartoon is death in a film, particularly when those choices are predicated on the comedic talents of a young actor and a chimpanzee in live-action sequences.

I can see the argument for keeping the goofy Spritle/Chim Chim scenes as a means of connecting this film to kids, but on the whole that was probably the wrong choice given how heavily stylized everything is. This is far from a realist film, but it’s also a long way from the kind of stylization that would appeal to anyone who isn’t plugging into the camp nostalgia of their approach. There are times when this leads to some really entertaining irony – the ninja, for example, or the major fight scene – but when that’s pushed to far it becomes inane rather than clever.

5) It Telegraphs Its Punches
Bless it’s heart, it tries not to – but the fact that Matthew Fox is Rex Racer despite the fact that another character plays him early on isn’t exactly a surprise. It’s not just a hold-over from the cartoon series either – Matthew Fox appears at exactly the right point, narratively speaking, to be the missing Rex Racer/Mentor figure and they don’t work hard enough to throw off that suspicion. Much like everything else, thematically speaking, it’s heavy-handed and overstated. It’s even foreshadowed in terms of motif, where people are not what they appear throughout the film (the big-bad-businessman in the first act, the man Speed and Racer X work with in the second act). What should be clever narrative decisions are let down by the flaws in the structure and become far to noticeable.

The reason I say watch this film isn’t necessarily because it’s irredeemably bad, although it looks like it is on the surface. Rather, it’s interesting because there’s enough good points to it that the really obvious failures are killers – or, at the very least, they put Speed Racer on the wrong side of the line between mundane and glorious failure. It’s such a great example of getting things wrong, structurally, that I kind of sat there wondering how they’d missed it (although this is probably a cautionary tale to writers in that respect – it’s easy to think you’ve linked things well enough in a narrative to justify having them there). There’s a part of me that pines for the film this could have been and keeps going back to it in the hopes it can be redrafted and fixed.

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