Speed Racer (US - BD)
Reviewer Marcus Doidge revs up with Speed Racer on Warner's Blu-ray Disc
The Wachowskis are back! After those dodgy Matrix sequels and their hand in the fantastic V For Vendetta the Wachowskis bring us their newest visual delight, Speed Racer, telling the story of the Racer family, who have racing in their blood. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), the latest son of the Racer family to have a natural talent for racing, is on the verge of hitting the big time on the racing circuit—just how many more references to racing can I fit into that paragraph? Phew!
With the death of the eldest Racer son, Rex (Scott Porter), in the Casa Cristo 5000, an incredibly intense cross-country racing rally that's notorious for rough and foul play, the Racer family are broken. Pops (John Goodman) is full of regret for kicking his son out of the family home days before and the whole family still live under the shadow of the many slanderous stories that came out about Rex in regards to his apparent shady dealings in the corrupt side of racing.
After almost beating his brother’s race record, Speed is approached by Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), owner of conglomerate Royalton Industries, who wants Speed to race for him under his banner. Speed declines and Royalton turns nasty, explaining how racing is not about winning or losing but about money and corruption. Because Speed has turned down his offer, Royalton sets out to ruin him and his family. Enter Racer X (Matthew Fox) and the character with the coolest name of the year, Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) who assure the Racer family that they are aware of the corruption in racing and the only way to bring this system down is by revealing the truth… which Speed can help them with by entering a series of races leading up to the Grand Prix.
2008 was the year in which a number of directors seemed to be given free rein to play in the toy box. Nolan blew a hole in the movie world with The Dark Knight, del Toro seemed to bring his entire toy collection to Hellboy 2 and the Wachowskis got to go anime crazy with Speed Racer. I’ll admit, when I heard the Wachowskis where doing Speed Racer I was underwhelmed. I have no fond memories of the original TV show and to say I was disappointed with the much hyped Wachowski car chase in The Matrix Reloaded is an understatement. I just wrote Speed Racer off to be little more than a mixture of slow motion, bullet time and stop/start action that would be about as kinetic as watching glue drip down a wall. Well thankfully, I was very, very wrong.
From the outset Speed Racer is mesmerising. Those cars fly round those crazy tracks with equal amounts of insanity and grace. The editing is edge of your seat stuff and just when you think it's got as crazy as it can get, it goes even further. This isn’t the dreary showing off that the Matrix car chase suffered from at all, this is something exciting, something new, something spectacular. This has the feeling of playing with toy cars when you were a kid and frankly that comes with full on giddy excitement.
Of course all this flashy stuff would be nothing without some characters to back it up and in this department, once again, Speed Racer shines. The Racer family feel like a real family, with real love for one another and considering this is based on a kids’ TV show and is made for kids, the Wachowskis never shy away from the harsh reality that families can come with problems and the Racer family have a lot of them. At the core of all this, the death of Rex Racer is really what’s stopping this family from being happy. Despite looking as if they’d moved on and got back into the racing game, Rex’s death is holding them all back, especially Speed. He’s better than his brother but he doesn’t want to take that legacy away. This is captured almost immediately in the opening fifteen minutes, which show Speed on the brink of beating his brother’s record. Inter-cut with flashbacks of a younger Speed learning to drive alongside Rex and the Wachowskis doing a fine job of showing how he idolised him and had childhood dreams of being just like him. You really get how much the family miss Rex with the open scene playing out and thankfully it’s not rammed down your throat but just under the surface.
What follows this killer opening sequence is a forty minutes change of pace which I’d imagine is what some of the negative reviews the movie received stem from. There are still a great deal of cool visuals, but it all becomes about setting up the rest of the movie and just gets a little heavy in places, especially for the kids the film was made for. One scene in particular bangs on about the history of racing, its corruption and how it affected the stock market, and I for one know that my kids didn’t follow any of it, other than they knew for sure that Mr Royalton was obviously the bad guy at this stage. Also featured a lot in this run of the movie, is the other factor to split the audience down the middle: the youngest member of the Racer family, Spritle and his Chimp. I personally think they're fairly well handled and never annoyed me too much, but I can see how the kid might. Saying that though, it’s worth having the chimp in it for the shot of the family standing hands on hips annoyed with Speed and having the chimp in the same stance. Made me chuckle anyway.
The lull soon lifts, with the arrival of Racer X. As soon as he meets up with the family and enters into the races alongside Speed, the movie just gets great again. Matthew Fox has a close to God-like status in my household, due to the huge amount of love we all have for Lost (in fact my three year old proclaimed ‘Jack from Lost’ out loud when Racer X de-masked, at the cinema screening) so it was a joy to see him in a role that really got him playing on his strengths. Racer X is cool. Everything he says comes with intensity and the Wachowskis have a field day making him a badass. His fight scene with the ninja is the Wachowskis at their Matrix best, and Racer X’s input when helping Speed in the Casa Cristo 5000 (yes, Speed goes to race where his brother died!) is ridiculously cool and added to that, the 'is he, isn’t he' Speed’s brother Rex back from the dead mystery (which I won’t ruin for you) is beautifully played out.
At its core, Speed Racer is a sports movie. It’s more subtle than you’d think and it really comes into play in the final Grand Prix. The moment Speed Racer steps out on that track, you genuinely get a feeling that this is building to something and amazingly it really does. The last race is like the podrace from the Phantom Menace, but on lots and lots of drugs, the Wachowskis throw the kitchen sink at you on this one. Every single moment is incredible and like every classic sports movie finale, every element that this moment is riding on is included. The Racer family, the bad guys, Racer X, it all seems to come down to this race. The insanity builds, the emotional punch is woven in beautifully, the editing gets frantic, the visuals just blow your mind to the point where you are almost re-experiencing the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey and you are literally caught in moment of absolute movie gold.
I won’t spoil the end for you but I will say that I came out the other end of this Blu-ray, as hyped and as impressed as I was the first time I saw it on the cinema screen. Yes, it might be a little long in places and yes, some viewers might need to persevere more than others, but for me, Speed Racer kicked off the 2008 Summer movie season with a bang and I’m glad to say I was still feeling the aftershocks on this Blu-ray release.
From very early on, this was a Blu-ray that I was looking forward to getting. From the very first trailer this screamed ‘see me in HD’ and it does not disappoint. Speed Racer glows in solid neon off of the screen for the most part and then everything else is the purest use of primary colours I’ve seen in a long time, in fact the colours on my TV have never been used to such full effect. The speed of the images never have a problem keeping their detail and aside from some minor issues with patchy darker scenes, it has to be said that this is a transfer that really has to be considered a show-off Blu-ray, mainly to experience how much is going on. From its use of light, colour, detail and sheer experimentation within the image, Speed Racer just keeps on out-doing itself as the movie progresses until you get to that dizzying closing race that takes it out of this world.
Presented in plain ol’ Dolby Digital 5.1, this manages to do a pretty good job, considering you would expect more sound options from an HD release. The surround is well thought out within the 5.1 system, with sounds of cars everywhere, a great amount of bass for the soundtrack and generally clear dialogue. I say generally, as there's a slightly bizarre echo to some of the dialogue within some of the cars' cockpits. It’s ever so slight and more than likely intentional, but I never noticed it in the cinema, so felt it needed mentioning here.
I did feel that the sound could have used just a little bit more oomph in places. The first half, where I really focused on it for the good of this review, I certainly felt it needed something a bit more powerful, but by movies end and in the big climatic final race, it all kicks in wonderfully. Strong bass, great atmospheric use of all the speakers and overall it really delivers the goods.
Now this is where Speed Racer really lets itself down. Considering the technical wizardry involved in this movie we get pretty close to nothing. There’s a making of called ‘Car Fu’ (27:38), which gives you the briefest of stories on how the Wachowskis came about doing the project, though not from the brothers themselves, but from Joel Silver and some of the SFX guys. There are some animatics and discussions on the work that went into the movie, but this all moves along lightning fast and despite it covering all the bases it’s hardly in the detail the movie deserves.
Next up, is following the kid with the chimp around, in ‘Spritle in the Big Leagues’ (14:34), which is actually okay in regards to detail with the pop up facts throughout, but it’s really glossy nonsense at best. Same can be said for ‘Speed Racer: Super Charged’ (15:43), a featurette in which we meet the drivers, the cars and the tracks. It’s really not that enthralling.
To add insult to injury, disc two is a DVD based Speed Racer game, which is interactive, slow and the pausing between selections was infuriating. This might hold your attention for around five minutes but if it goes beyond that you may want to seek medical assistance.
To round up there’s a digital copy on disc three that, depending on your feelings on this sort of thing, is a either a nice bonus or a waste of time.
I enjoyed Speed Racer immensely when it kicked off summer 2008’s big movies and I enjoyed it even more on Blu-ray. It’s full of incredible visuals, it’s a lot of fun and even more than all of that, it has a whole lot of heart.
Fans of sports movies should eat this up as it does everything sports movies should do, and with genuine class and anyone who's really up for seeing something new and exciting should also get a kick out of it too. I’m not blinded by my admiration for the movie to recommend this to everyone—it’s a pretty hard sell for anyone going into this one blind or not wanting to like it—but don’t let its poor take at the box office put you off. Speed Racer has a lot to entertain and despite its poor special features and it’s one hell of an impressive Blu-ray release that I will be watching a whole lot.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Marcus Doidge
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 16th September 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dollby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1 Portuguese
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Extras: Making ofs, Featurette, DVD game, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama and Family
Length: 135 minutes
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