I recently had a chance to watch the Wachowski siblings’ live-action adaptation of Tatsuo Yoshida’s Speed Racer (aka the much-more-evocative Mach Go Go Go) for a second time. After 135 hallucinatory, candy-coated minutes of Mobius strip racetracks and Mobius strip plot, I was left with one question: is this the future of cinema?
Speed Racer tosses linear narrative out the power window in its opening sequence, as it Tokyo drifts between an elementary-school-aged Speed Racer doodling flip-book racecars in class, a teenage Speed Racer racing against his brother’s ghost (in his imagination) while redlining toward the checkered flag on a CGI racetrack that leaves Newtoninan physics in the rearview mirror, and a formative-years montage that gets gallons to the mile. It’s a Pimp-My-Ride mission statement that says, in no uncertain terms: ADHD is not a learning disability. It’s an evolutionary adaptation. In the space of a few minutes, Speed Racer traces the entire history of animation, then proceeds to colour outside the lines as it delineates the go-go-check world of tomorrow.
The world of Speed Racer moves too fast for physics. It’s a world where cars pedal-to-the-metal at over 800 kph, racetracks look like rollercoasters and people age in jumpcuts, only accessing the intervening years through dramatically convenient, on-the-fly flashbacks. In Speed Racer (as in cinema, as in life), the only direction is forward.
This is a world where everyone has their own personal greenscreen, and every speech is accompanied by a background montage that illustrates, complements and amplifies what is spoken. It’s the triumph of the subjective, as dialogue scenes become paired monologues become vehicles for a stream-of-consciousness motion-controlled cameras that no longer need a shot/reverse shot structure to tell you who’s talking to whom. Case in point: as Speed Racer, his girlfriend Trixie (side note: I could watch Christina Ricci weld all day long; a previously unsuspected fetish) and Racer X drive through the mountains, each in their own car, a three-lane dialogue scene takes place. But instead of cutting between the speakers, the camera simply zooms and tracks in and out from one cockpit to the other, never missing a beat of the conversation.
It’s a bravura sequence that leads to an even more bravura fight scene between the Racer family (Chim-Chim and all) and the agents of the requisite villainous racing tycoon, Arnold Royalton. The fight evolves the Wachowski’s Matrix aesthetic in a way that its sequels failed so miserably to do, creating anime speed-lines out of swirls of snow through camera movements, using the fighters’ bodies to wipe (again rather than cutting) from one struggle to another and perfectly tracking the fisticuffs among no fewer than a dozen combatants. All this with a swelling score that breaks out – at the perfect moment – into a rendition of the Speed Racer theme. It’s something pretty rare, that scene – a moment of pure, cinematic joy.
But Speed Racer also has a serious chassis. Its plot driver is a story of big, corrupt, colluding business out to profit from or destroy the livelihoods of independents who do it for love, and in these times of (can’t believe I’m going to type this, but here it goes) global economic crisis, it resonates – far moreso than the first time I watched the film.
Why didn’t Speed Racer do better at the box office? Good movies often don’t, but that’s a Model-T answer. I think the real reason is that the people who buy the tickets just aren’t ready for a movie that starts in overdrive and gears up from there. They’re used to Michael Bay using special effects to make product placements look good. Or Spielberg using special effects to serve classic Hollywood storytelling models. In Speed Racer, the Wachowskis use special effects to serve storytelling models that have are barely off the assembly line. Speed Racer plays Chicken with the audience, and I think a lot of people yanked their aesthetic steering wheels to the right and ended up seeing little more than the Wachowski’s brake lights disappearing in the rearview mirror.
So, yeah, Speed Racer is the newest entry into my list of favourite car chase movies. It might not deliver the visceral tension of The Seven Ups or the sustained adrenaline of The Road Warrior or the unrelenting inventiveness of The Italian Job (1969 version, as if I needed to clarify) or the creeping speedometer of suspense that is Duel.
What it does do is perfectly capture – and realize – the childhood dream of what it would be like to be a racecar driver. The cars of Speed Racer don’t run on gas, or ethanol, or even hydrogen. They run on pure imagination.
Ian Driscoll is jammin’ down the pedal like he’s never comin’ back.