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SPEED RACER
Blu-ray Edition

Film review by Gordon Justesen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox
Directors: The Wachowski Brothers
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 135 Minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2008

“He’s going to be very good.”

“No, he’s going to be the best…if they don’t destroy him first.”

Film ***1/2

Every year presents at least one movie I feel thoroughly obligated to defend, in spite of it missing the mark in one way or another. For 2008, that movie is without question Speed Racer. However, my reasons for defending it are rather different than I’m normally used to.

The movie wasn’t bashed by critics, as the reviews were very much mixed, but it seemed the only thing people could seem to focus on was how much it was failing at the box office, when all I couldn’t stop telling people was how amazing seeing a movie like this in the theater was. It was a movie meant to be experienced on the big screen, and I was disappointed to see that so many had missed out on it. And so I’m urging all DVD and Blu-ray enthusiasts to give Speed Racer another life, because I can’t put it any plainer…the movie is a one of a kind marvel.

It took quite a while for the big screen version of the 60s anime cult phenomenon to arrive, and when I first learned that the transition was being handled by innovative visionaries Andy and Larry Wachowski, I was sold on it before I even saw a trailer. And just like they did with the art of visual effects in The Matrix, The Wachowski’s have revolutionized the mixing of computer effects and live action with Speed Racer. Think of it as Tron injected into a colorized world on steroids!

In addition, The Wachowskis have managed to create a much deeper story than one is used to associating with a classic animated Speed Racer adventure. At the same time, they have stayed completely true to frenetic and expected corny tone of the original cartoon. What’s more, every detail of the cartoon has made its way into the movie, so in a way we are very much watching a live action anime!

The story centers on Speed (Emile Hirsch) and his rise to the top of the World Racing League, via the one of a kind Mach 5. Racing is in his family bloodline, and Speed wants nothing more in life than to follow in the footsteps of older brother, Rex. As we find out in the opening of the story, Rex went on to become a disgrace to the sport before an auto crash took his life.

Speed’s rise to the top attracts the attention of racing mogul Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam). Offering a most lucrative deal, Royalton wants to be Speed’s first and only sponsor. But the deal doesn’t sit right with his father, Pops (John Goodman), who sees Royalton as nothing but a crook.

So Speed, in staying true to his family’s legacy, rejects the offer. It’s a move that instantly angers Royalton who, after revealing that he and numerous corporations are fixing races to gain profit, delivers a warning to Speed. Reject the deal and he won’t survive another race.

But Speed persists in competing, and he won’t be alone in fighting off the evil corporate powers that control the track. In addition to his family, as well as loyal girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) arrives to persuade Speed to take part in the biggest racing competition of them all, The Casa Cristo…better known as “The Crucible”. Claiming victory at this race will mean an even bigger chance at victory in the Grand Prix.

As I mentioned earlier, countless characters from the cartoon pop up in the film. Every possible racing nemesis of Speed’s pop up on the track, from Snake Oiler to the Sempre Fi-ber to the Crunchers. We even get an appearance from one of the coolest named characters of all time, Inspector Detector. There’s no question that The Wachowski Brothers were extremely loyal fans of this universe.

I only have one complaint about the movie. The madcap mischief of Speed’s little brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt) and pet chimp, Chim Chim, become a bit too juvenile and annoying. But in a way I’m wasting my breath here, because Spritle was always juvenile and annoying on the cartoon.

But the main attraction here is the visual approach that The Wachowski Brothers have brought to the table here. It is nothing short of magnificent, as every camera shot has been designed to amaze the senses. You are basically getting a visual treat with just about every shot of the movie.

And in keeping true to the animated world of Speed Racer, The Wachowskis have redefined the technique of head scrolls. It’s used heavily and consistently during the many racing scenes, adding a spectacular feel to the movie. I can’t really remember another live action film where this visual technique was used, and though it may wear out some viewers, I never got tired of it for a second.

As far as I’m concerned, you can forget The Fast and the Furious, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Days of Thunder or even Cars. The racing sequences in Speed Racer are the best I’ve ever seen. Combined with the phenomenal visuals, these scenes carry a truly fast and furious quality to them. I can honestly say that experiencing this movie is the closest one can possibly get to being behind the wheel of a race car.

I must applaud the casting choices, because not only do the actors serve the material very well, but they each come close to fully resembling the characters from the show. Numerous close up shots of Emile Hirsch in the Mach 5 had an uncanny resemblance to the animated Speed, right down to facial expressions. John Goodman is about as perfect an actor one could ever hope to play Pops Racer. I haven’t even mentioned that Susan Sarandon (still hot as fire in her 60s) plays Mom Racer. And Christina Ricci gets double credit, because not only does she resemble Trixie, but she has never looked more beautiful on screen.

But the one cast member who steals the movie, and is a major reason for any die-hard Speed Racer fan to see the movie, is Matthew Fox. He completely inhabits the role of Racer X, which is one of the first masked avenger characters ever created. Fox is clearly a dedicated fan and wanted to do the role absolute justice, which is exactly what he does. 

In the history of cartoon classics leaping to live action form, we’ve had to settle for extremely mediocre fare like The Flintstones, Casper, Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks (do I even need to mention Popeye or Mr. Magoo?). Speed Racer marks the very first time that such a transition was done right. The Wachowski Brothers should be given tremendous credit for creating a most dazzling and amazingly visceral movie experience.

BONUS: Peter Fernandez, who provided the voice for the animated Speed Racer, makes an appearance as a race announcer. 

Video ****

Wow.  WOW.  This is almost defiant of adjectives.  I thought I knew what kind of visuals high definition and Blu-ray had to offer, but I've never seen a movie push those capabilities so far.  This is a stunning, fast, furious and absolutely perfect HD transfer.  There are so many vibrant colors, so much action, such high levels of detail in shot after shot that you may never look at your system the same way again.  This is by far the best looking Blu-ray I've seen.  Seriously, for the foreseeable future, this is my new demo disc.

Audio ****

The Dolby soundtrack is also an impressive juggernaut of quality, with explosive dynamic range and almost constant use of the surrounds and subwoofers.  Racing movies tend to sound great, but purely fantasy racing raises the bar and goes beyond the impossible and improbable.  What an absolute treat!

Features **1/2

There are three featurettes:  "Car-Fu Cinema",  "Spritle In The Big Leagues" and "Speed Racer: Supercharged", which all take you behind the scenes and show you how some of the magic was created.  The Blu-ray also includes a DVD ROM game bonus disc for "Crucible Challenge".

Summary:

There has never been a more better time to yell “GO, SPEED, GO!” at the top of your lungs. Speed Racer is a rare, victorious leap from animation to live action, and one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.  The Wachowski Brothers apply their visionary brilliance, as well as their love for the cartoon, to make a true one of a kind Blu-ray experience!

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