"Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer."
If you're of a certain vintage, the theme song from that late-'60s animated TV show likely kindles fond memories. At least, that's what Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brain trust behind the R-rated Matrix trilogy, are hoping. The pair's latest directorial effort—an eye-popping, live-action adaptation of anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida's beloved series—reloads and revolutionizes the franchise about a fearless young racer, his remarkable car, his family and the girl who loves him.
Speed Racer shows up in his car eight years after a tragic accident took away his cherished older brother, Rex. As Speed rockets through a roller-coaster neon track, flashbacks show how young Speed idolized his big bro. "He's chasing the ghost of Rex Racer," says the race's announcer.
Indeed, racing and family are the only things that matter to Speed. When he's not careening past the competition, Speed lounges at home where Pops Racer and chief mechanic Sparky keep his car, the fabled Mach 5, in tip-top shape. Mom Racer serves up encouragement and vittles with love and affection, while little brother Spritle clowns around with the family's pet chimpanzee, Chim Chim. Speed's longtime steady, the irrepressibly spunky Trixie, is practically a part of the family as well.
The Racer clan's idyllic way of life is shaken the day a smooth talking tycoon named Royalton shows up—in his jet—to recruit Speed to his racing team. When Speed rebuffs his offer, the salesman's smiles degenerate into dire threats. Adding insult to injury, Royalton informs Speed that every race for the last 40 years has been fixed.
To reveal Royalton's treachery and save his family, his career and the sport he loves, Speed teams up with rogue racer Taejo Togokhan and the mysterious Racer X. Their must-win race? The very one that took Rex's life: the Casa Cristo Classic 5000.
More than racing, the Racer family is wholeheartedly devoted to one another. Mom tells Speed, "I'm impossibly proud to be your mom." And after a disagreement about Speed's decision to race in the Casa Cristo, Pops apologizes for harsh words and says that he couldn't be more proud of his son. He congratulates Speed for having the courage and integrity to do what he thinks is right, and he concludes with "I love you." Speed dittos those precious words, but it's Pops who's done the most good here, showing that he's finally learned to put family above family business.
Pops tells his sons that marrying his best friend was the best decision he ever made. Presented with Royalton's opulence, he respectfully says that luxury isn't what matters. Speed wisely refuses to accept Royalton's offer, and he later stands firm in the face of Royalton's bullying attempts to blackmail him into joining the team. Likewise, Pops won't be cowed by Royalton's threats and insists that "the truth will come out" about the tycoon's cheating.
Each of the main protagonists exhibits loyalty, bravery and self-sacrifice while standing up to Royalton. As for Royalton himself, his creed is best summed up in his own arrogant words: "All that matters is power and the unassailable might of money." He offers a million dollars to any driver who can take Speed Racer out. And he pays mercenary teams to try to keep Speed from finishing the Casa Cristo. But everything about his actions and attitudes is shown to be negative.
Speed says of his family, "Racing's in our blood. For Pops, it's not just a sport. It's like a religion. And major sponsors are the devil." Royalton uses similar language, saying, "This is my religion." After the racing baron threatens to sue the Racer family, Speed says, "Pops is right: You are the devil."
Spritle watches one cartoon character say to another, "I will eat your soul." The expression "God help them" pops up once. As does a snake charmer.
Mom's shirts show some cleavage. So do some of Trixie's outfits. Much more sensually attired are various "racer girls," the women who start races, carry trophies, etc. They wear bikini-like tops and short skirts. And some of the women attending to Royalton also sport plunging necklines and leg-revealing hemlines.
Speed and Trixie are parking at Inspiration Point, talking about their relationship and leaning in to kiss when they're interrupted by Spritle and Chim Chim, who are hiding in the trunk. When the two finally do kiss at film's end, the action pauses for Spritle to make a humorous disclaimer.
A baddie threatens a racer by sneeringly and suggestively saying that he's got "a soft spot for your sister" if the racer fails to cooperate.
As any NASCAR fan will tell you, auto racing can be spectacularly violent. And the Wachowski brothers have certainly capitalized on that here, using special effects to stylize and hyperbolize every wreck. Racers actively seek to force one another off various tracks, resulting in spinouts and freefalls. When racers crash—which they do often—their cars explode. But drivers usually escape injury as they eject in egg-like escape pods.
When Speed Racer enters the Casa Cristo Classic, he learns that virtually all the racers have some sort of signature weapon. He, Taejo and Racer X must fend off all manner of creative armaments, from maces, blades and spikes to oil slicks, bees and cobras. Speed and his friends deploy various defensive countermeasures, such as tire shields or jump jacks that propel their vehicles into the air. Speed also goes on the attack from time to time, once running a rival off a cliff.
The result of all this is an intermittently intense—always frenetic and loud—roller derby-like choreography as drivers attack and dodge, dodge and attack. And don't think for a second that the laws of physics apply to Speed and the other racers. Cars flip, flop, fly, change directions on a dime, crash, rebound and pounce as only cartoon cars can.
Not so cartoonish are scenes involving machine guns. And since more than a little of the action is shown in slow motion, the violence is given an extra Matrix-like punch. While threatening to throw him into a tank full of piranhas, Royalton's goons repeatedly pummel an uncooperative driver's face, leaving him bloody with a split lip and bruises. When Racer X shows up to rescue him, the ensuing battle involves bullets, rockets and other ordnance. A bullet punches a hole in the piranha tank, and the chief bad guy instructs a lackey to plug the hole with his finger—with predictable results. (We hear him screaming and see the piranhas swirling around the exposed extremity.)
Kung fu battles involve punches, kicks, choke holds and hurled furniture. A ninja uses a blow dart to paralyze his sleeping victim. After a protracted battle that trashes their room, the Racer family throws another ninja off a hotel balcony. (It's unclear how far up they are or what becomes of the villain.) Spritle kicks a guy in the crotch.
In separate flashbacks, Trixie hits a girl who's making fun of Speed, and Speed hits a boy for impugning Rex's honor. As a kid, Speed is handed a disguised bomb that he's told to give to his brother. It detonates frighteningly close to the house, but Trixie's response is "cool beans!" And she says the same thing after the ninja fight years later.
Crude or Profane Language
Racer X interjects "Jesus" once; other characters exclaim "oh my god" or "jeez" a handful of times. A sports announcer's insertion of "holy s---" is partially bleeped. Someone else's "what the ..." gets cut off. "A--" is said a handful of times; "d--n" and "h---" once each. There are also a couple of references to "turds." Spritle eschews harsh words in favor of extending his middle finger at one point.
Drug and Alcohol Content
People drink alcohol (beer, champagne, mixed drinks) in several scenes. Speed and Trixie appear to have glasses of wine at a restaurant. But such imbibing usually comes courtesy of Royalton, whose racer-training facility sports a casino where people drink and gamble. Royalton recruits a rowdy team of Viking-like racers from a bar where they're drinking liberally and sloppily. He also mentions that he has his own premium cigars, and later we see a man smoking a cigar. A racer is poisoned with a drug that makes him sleepy.
Other Negative Elements
Speed and Trixie lie to his parents in order to participate in the Casa Cristo Classic. When the family learns the truth (from TV) and arrives at the race, Pops initially tells Speed to drop out because it's too dangerous. Speed counters, "I'm not a child, Pops." And the family quickly joins in the race effort. Whether or not Speed's actions and response are seen as outright rebellious behavior likely hinges on his age. He's already out of high school, so he's probably old enough to make his own decisions. On the other hand, he still lives at home under Pops' rules.
(A bit of mitigation: The movie deals with Speed's deception when Mom says, "You wouldn't lie to your mother, would you?" Speed replies, "Never again.")
Finding his kid brother stowed away in the trunk of his car, Speed slams the lid, keeping him there for the ride home. As a child, Speed talks Rex into taking the Mach 5 to the track where Speed drives while sitting on his brother's lap. This, despite the fact that we learn the two had done this before—and wrecked the car. Stunt footage features a man strapped to the hood of a car that flies through a flaming wall.
Spritle refers to "Chim Chim cookies," and the chimp's excrement gets flung in a bad guy's face. Spritle sneaks onto Royalton's jet, finds a candy stash and binges until he passes out. A ninja gets pantsed in combat. (We see his boxers.)
Imagine strapping into a swoopy retro-yet-futuristic sports car and blasting straight into a kaleidoscope of impossibly colliding colors. That's what Speed Racer feels like. In the same way that films such as Blade Runner and The Matrix established new visual benchmarks, so Speed Racer looks unlike anything I've ever seen on the big screen.
Leaving behind the dark, dystopian visions presented in those R-rated films, Speed Racer is drenched in vibrant colors that seem to symbolize the effervescent family life that the Racers cherish.
And families, it turns out, are exactly what the makers of Speed Racer meant to steer toward. Producer Joel Silver said of the film, "We're thrilled to have the chance to introduce Speed Racer to a new generation and very proud to make a family film that audiences of all ages can enjoy." Matthew Fox, who plays Racer X, added, "One of the first things [the Wachowskis] said to me about their goal with this project was that they wanted to make a movie their nieces and nephews could really enjoy."
Have they succeeded? In some significant ways, yes. Much of the racing action delivers smile-inducing thrills while remaining in cotton candy territory. And the Racers love for one another is refreshingly old-fashioned in an age when families (especially fathers) are often treated with cynicism and sarcasm. The film's anti-commercialism message is also well-placed.
So why assail nieces and nephews around the globe with a dozen or so profanities—especially with an abuse of Jesus' name? A severe face-bloodying beating isn't really family fare, is it? Or a digit-relieving piranha scene? How 'bout Spritle's obscene gesture and images of sensual racer girls? Does anybody remember all that stuff being in the TV show?
The Wachowskis, then, are to be commended for what they got right. And I've done that. But before you get all the way to the last lap on this one, it's worth remembering that you can take the Wachowskis out of The Matrix, but you can't completely take The Matrix out of the Wachowskis.