Speed Racer (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Larry Wachowski
|Produced by||Larry Wachowski
|Written by||Larry Wachowski
|Based on||Speed Racer
by Tatsuo Yoshida
|Music by||Michael Giacchino|
|Editing by||Roger Barton
|Studio||Village Roadshow Pictures
Sechste Babelsberg Film
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Running time||135 minutes|
Speed Racer is a 2008 American action film written, produced and directed by The Wachowski Brothers. A live action adaptation of the 1960s Japanese anime series Speed Racer, it stars Emile Hirsch in the title role, with supporting roles played by Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Matthew Fox. The film had been in development since 1992, changing writers and directors until producer Joel Silver and the Wachowskis collaborated to begin production on Speed Racer as a family film.
Speed Racer was shot between early June and late August 2007 in and around Potsdam and Berlin, at an estimated budget of $120,000,000. It premiered on May 3, 2008 as the closing film at the Tribeca Film Festival, and was released in theaters the following week. Though a critical and box office failure, Time magazine included Speed Racer on its list of "The All-Time 25 Best Sports Movies" and "Top 10 Movies of 2008".
Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is an 18-year-old whose life and love has always been automobile racing. His parents Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon) run the independent Racer Motors, in which his brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), and girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) are also involved. As a child Speed idolized his record-setting older brother, Rex Racer (Scott Porter), but Rex was disowned by Pops for his decision to join a corporate racing team and was publicly defamed for appearing to cheat in a race. He was then killed while racing in the Casa Cristo 5000, an intense cross-country racing rally notorious for rough and foul play. Now embarking on his own career, Speed Racer is quickly sweeping the racing world with his skill behind the wheel of his brother's car the Mach 5 and his own Formula One car the Mach 6, but remains primarily interested in the art of the race and the well-being of his family.
E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), owner of conglomerate Royalton Industries, offers Speed an astoundingly luxurious lifestyle in exchange for signing to race with him. Speed is tempted but declines due to his father's distrust of power-hungry corporations. Angered, Royalton reveals that for many years the key races have been fixed by corporate interests, including Royalton himself, to gain profits. He threatens Speed's career and family, making good on these threats by having his drivers force Speed into a crash that destroys the Mach 6 and suing Racer Motors for intellectual property infringement. Speed decides that he must do something to stop Royalton and save the Racer business, and an opportunity to do so arises in the form of Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann), head of a corporate crimes division. Racer Taejo Togokahn (Rain) claims to have evidence that could indict Royalton but will only offer it up if Speed and the mysterious masked Racer X (Matthew Fox) agree to race on his team in the Casa Cristo 5000. Taejo claims that a win could substantially raise the stock price of his family's racing business, blocking a Royalton-arranged buyout. Speed agrees but keeps his decision secret from his family, and Inspector Detector's team makes several defensive modifications to the Mach 5 to assist Speed in the rally.
After they drive together and work naturally as a team, Speed begins to suspect that Racer X is actually his brother Rex in disguise. His family discovers that he has entered the race and agree to support him. With the help of his family and Trixie, Speed defeats many brutal racers who have been bribed by fixer Cruncher Block (John Benfield) to stop him, and overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to win the race. However, Taejo's arrangement is revealed to be a sham, as he was only interested in increasing the value of his family's company so that they could profit from Royalton's buyout. An angry Speed hits the track that he used to drive with his brother, and confronts Racer X with his suspicion that he is Rex. Racer X removes his mask, revealing an unfamiliar face, and tells Speed that Rex truly is dead. Speed returns home, where Taejo's sister Horuko Togokahn (Yu Nan) gives him Taejo's automatic invitation to the Grand Prix. The Racer family bands together and builds a new Mach 6 in 32 hours.
Speed enters the Grand Prix against great odds: Royalton has placed a bounty on his head that the other drivers are eager to collect, and he is pitted against legendary Hall of Fame driver Jack "Cannonball" Taylor (Ralph Herforth). Speed overcomes a slow start to catch up with Taylor, who uses a cheating device called a spearhook to latch the Mach 6 to his own car. Speed uses his jump jacks to expose the device to video cameras and cause Taylor to crash. Speed wins the race, having successfully exposed Royalton's crimes. Racer X, who is watching, reveals through a flashback montage that he is indeed Rex, having faked his death and undergone plastic surgery to change his appearance as part of his plan to save his family and the sport of racing. He chooses not to reveal his identity to his family, declaring that he must live with his decision. The Racer family celebrates Speed's victory as Speed and Trixie kiss, and Royalton is sent to jail.
- Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer. Actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shia LaBeouf were previously considered for the role. To prepare for the role, Hirsch watched every Speed Racer episode and visited Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he met with driver Jimmie Johnson.
- Nicholas Elia as young Speed Racer.
- Christina Ricci as Trixie, Speed's girlfriend. Ricci was chosen over Elisha Cuthbert and Kate Mara.
- Ariel Winter as young Trixie.
- Matthew Fox as Racer X. Keanu Reeves turned down the role.
- Rain (Bi/Jeong Ji-hoon) as Taejo Togokahn, a rookie racer.
- John Goodman as Pops Racer, Speed's father.
- Susan Sarandon as Mom Racer, Speed's mother.
- Scott Porter as Rex Racer, Speed's older brother.
- Paulie Litt as Spritle Racer, Speed's younger brother .
- Kick Gurry as Sparky, Speed's mechanic and best friend.
- Chim Chim, Spritle's pet chimpanzee and best friend is portrayed by two chimpanzees in the film: "Kenzie" and Willy".
- Nayo Wallace as Minx, a scientist and Racer X's girlfriend.
- Benno Fürmann as Inspector Detector, head of the Corporate Crimes Division, Central Intelligence Bureau.
- Togo Igawa as Tetsuo Togokahn, Taejo and Haruko's father, and a corporate rival to both Royalton and Musha.
- Yu Nan as Horuko Togokahn, Taejo Togokhan's sister.
- Roger Allam as E.P. Arnold Royalton, the corrupt owner and CEO of Royalton Industries. Time magazine critic Richard Corliss claimed that Allam was "channeling Brit pundit Christopher Hitchens as his most pompestuous", a comparison made by several other reviews.
- Hiroyuki Sanada as Mr. Musha, president and CEO of Musha Motors.
- John Benfield as Cruncher Block, a gang leader.
- Ralph Herforth as Jack 'Cannonball' Taylor, a superstar racer sponsored by Royalton Industries.
- Christian Oliver as Snake Oiler, a leading racer of Team Hydra-Cell.
- Jana Pallaske as Delila, a leading racer of Team Flying Foxes.
- Werner Daehn as Colonel Colon, a leading racer of Team Sempre Fi-Ber.
- Komi Togbonou as a leading racer of Team Thor-Axine.
- Moritz Bleibtreu as Grey Ghost, another top racer.
- Milka Duno as Gearbox, yet another top racer.
- Joe Mazza as Nitro Venderhoss, still yet another top racer.
- Leila Rozario as another Team Hydra-cell Driver
- Richard Roundtree as Ben Burns, a race commentator and former racing champion.
- Melvil Poupaud as Johnny 'Goodboy' Jones, a race commentator at the Casa Cristo.
- Peter Fernandez, the voice-actor for Speed Racer in the original 1960s English dub, as another race commentator.
- Andres Cantor, famed (real-world) soccer commentator, as a Spanish-speaking race commentator at the Grand Prix.
- Art LaFleur as Fiji race commentator
In September 1992, Warner Bros. announced that it held the option to create a live action film adaptation of Speed Racer, in development at Silver Pictures. In October 1994, singer Henry Rollins was offered the role of Racer X in the film. In June 1995, actor Johnny Depp was cast into the lead role for Speed Racer, with production slated to begin the coming October, with filming to take place in California and Arizona. The following August, Depp requested time off to the studio for personal business, delaying production. However, due to a high budget, the same August, director Julien Temple, who was attached to direct Speed Racer, left the project. Depp, without a director, also departed from the project. The studio considered director Gus Van Sant as a replacement for Temple, though it would not grant writing privileges to Van Sant. In December 1997, the studio briefly hired director Alfonso Cuarón for Speed Racer. In the various incarnations of the project, screenwriters Marc Levin, Jennifer Flackett, J. J. Abrams, and Patrick Read Johnson had been hired to write scripts.
In September 2000, Warner Bros. and producer Lauren Shuler Donner hired writer-director Hype Williams to take the helm of Speed Racer. In October 2001, the studio hired screenwriters Christian Gudegast and Paul Scheuring for $1.2 million split between them to write a script for the film. Eventually, without production getting under way, the director and the writers left the project. In June 2004, actor Vince Vaughn spearheaded a revival of the project by presenting a take for the film that would develop the characters more strongly. Vaughn was cast as Racer X and was also attached to the project as an executive producer. With production never becoming active, Vaughn was eventually detached from the project.
In October 2006, directors Larry and Andy Wachowski were brought on board by the studio to write and direct Speed Racer. Producer Joel Silver, who had collaborated with the Wachowski brothers for V for Vendetta and The Matrix Trilogy, explained that the brothers were hoping to reach a broader audience with a film that would not be rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America. Visual effects designer John Gaeta, who won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix, was brought in to help conceive making Speed Racer into a live-action adaptation. Production was set to begin in summer 2007 in European locations for a summer 2008 release. In November 2006, the release date for Speed Racer was set for May 23, 2008. Producer Joel Silver described Speed Racer as a family film in line with the Wachowski brothers' goal to reach a wider audience.
In February 2007, the Wachowski brothers selected Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, Germany to film Speed Racer. In the following March, Warner Bros. moved the release date of Speed Racer two weeks earlier to May 9, 2008. The studio received a grant of $12.3 million from Germany's new Federal Film Fund, the largest yet from the organization, for production of Speed Racer in the Berlin-Brandenburg region. The amount was later increased to $13 million. Principal photography commenced on June 5, 2007 in Berlin, and was shot entirely against greenscreen, lasting 60 days. The Wachowski brothers filmed in high-definition video for the first time. With the camera, the Wachowskis used a layering approach that would put both the foreground and the background in focus to give it the appearance of real-life anime. The film has a "retro future" look, according to Silver. The Mach 5, the vehicle driven by the protagonist Speed, was a drivable vehicle. Filming concluded on August 25, 2007. The Wachowskis purchased the rights to the sound effects and theme song of the television series for use in the film.
In addition to the orchestral score, WB added an updated version of the "Go, Speed Racer, Go" theme song which plays during the end credits; it was produced by Ali Dee Theodore and Jason Gleed, and performed by Ali Dee and the Deekompressors. The film version has sections in English, Japanese, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, in homage to the original 1967 anime being brought over to their respective countries outside Japan. This version was released as a single on January 1, 2008 to promote the film's release.
Animal cruelty 
During the production of Speed Racer, animal rights group PETA made allegations of animal cruelty against the film, reporting that one of the two chimpanzees used in the production was allegedly beaten after biting an actor. The incident was confirmed by the American Humane Animal Safety Representative on the set, who reported that the stand-in for the Spritle character portrayed by Litt had been bitten without provocation. The AHA representative also reported that "toward the end of filming, during a training session in the presence of the American Humane Representative, the trainer, in an uncontrolled impulse, hit the chimpanzee." The AHA Film Unit referred to this abuse as "completely inexcusable and unacceptable behavior in the use of any animal." The AHA has rated Speed Racer "Unacceptable" chiefly because of this incident, with American Humane noting "the aforementioned training incident tarnishes the excellent work of the rest of production" and that it "has no method of separating the actions of one individual in the employ of a production from the production as a whole."
The film was backed by multiple promotional partners with over $80 million in marketing support. The partners include General Mills, McDonald's, Target, Topps, Esurance, Mattel, Lego and Petrobras. The film also received support from companies outside of America in an attempt to attract international audiences. With early support before the film's release, the studio provided 3D computer models of the Speed Racer vehicle Mach 5 to the companies so they could accurately render the vehicle in their merchandise. Warner Bros. aimed to garner enough attention for Speed Racer so it would spawn sequels.
Mattel produced toys based on the film through several divisions. Hot Wheels produced die-cast vehicles, race sets and track sets. Tyco produced remote-controlled Mach 5s and racing sets. Radica Games produced video games in which players can use a car wheel. The products became available in March 2008. Also, the Lego Company produced four Lego sets based on the movie. As part of the General Mills promotional tie-in, during the 2008 Crown Royal Presents the Dan Lowry 400, part of the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the famous #43 Dodge Charger of Petty Enterprises was transformed into a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series version of the Mach 5, driven by Bobby Labonte.
Warner Bros., through its Interactive Entertainment division, self-published a video game based on Speed Racer, which was released on May 6, 2008 on the Nintendo DS and Wii, and was released on September 16, 2008 for the PlayStation 2. The original music for the Speed Racer video game was written by Winifred Phillips and produced by Winnie Waldron. The game was released on the Nintendo DS and Wii in May with the film's theatrical release and was released on the PS2 in the fall to accompany the film's DVD and Blu-ray release. Due to a short development schedule, the studio chose not to develop games for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Home media 
Warner Home Video released Speed Racer to DVD and Blu-ray on September 16, 2008. The three-disc set features the main feature and supplemental features on the first disc, the DVD game "Speed Racer Crucible Challenge" on the second disc, and a digital copy of the film on the third disc — the last two being exclusive to the Blu-ray release. After a year, US DVD sales reached $14 million.
Box office 
The film grossed $18,561,337 in its opening weekend from around 6,700 screens at 3,606 theaters in the United States and Canada and ranking third at the box office behind Iron Man and What Happens in Vegas. In its second weekend it grossed $8,117,459 and ranked fourth at the box office. The film closed its run on August 1, 2008 with $43,945,766 domestically and $93,945,766 worldwide. The results were well below studio expectations, given that the production costs of Speed Racer were estimated to be over $120 million. Despite the low box office numbers, Warner Bros. remained optimistic about sales of associated products ranging from toys to tennis shoes. Brad Globe, president of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, expressed hope that "We're still going to do very well with Speed Racer", acknowledging that "a giant movie would have made it all a lot bigger".
Critical reception 
Speed Racer has received generally negative reviews from film critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes ranked the film as "rotten", with 39% of its selected critics giving the film positive reviews, based on 207 reviews with an average rating of 5.1/10. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film has received an average score of 37 out of 100, which indicates "generally unfavorable reviews", based on 37 reviews.
Todd McCarthy of Variety called the film "pure cotton candy too sweet and pretty for young people to resist". He said that the target audience of families and children should be amused, but that others might think the film "a cinematic pile-up", citing its implausibility and the lack of identifiable peril in the driving sequences. McCarthy noted that no expense had been spared on the effects, saying that viewers with an interest in CGI innovations would be "in a corner of heaven", but that the frame sometimes resembled "nothing so much as a kindergartner's art class collage". He had praise for the cinematography and the "playful and busy" musical score. He also said that even if not much was asked of them "other than to look alert and driven", the cast was "very good for this sort of thing", and Roger Allam made "a delicious love-to-hate-him villain".
IGN gave the film 4.5/5 stars and stated: "Overall, this anime adaptation is not merely the best film that it could be, it's pretty much exactly what it should be: full of exciting, brilliantly-conceived races, primary-color characterizations and an irresistible sense of fun. Loud, fast and always in danger of veering out of control, Speed Racer is a masterpiece of its kind, and a definitive benchmark for film not only as a special effects extravaganza but as the moment when the Wachowskis went from wunderkind directors to true auteurs. In other words, as a summer distraction, a singular work of art or just as sensory overload, Speed Racer is a movie you absolutely must see."
Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter said that the visual effects were "stellar", but that unlike Pixar films which are aimed at as broad an audience as possible, Speed Racer "plays very young" and "proudly denies entry into its ultra-bright world to all but gamers, fanboys and anime enthusiasts". He said that story and character were "tossed aside" to "focus obsessively" on the action sequences. He called the number of races "wearying", saying they "all look alike no matter what the backgrounds", though indicating that "each race happens in a completely different environment". He also notes the ineffectiveness of "chimpanzee tricks, kid-brother high jinks, Ninja martial arts by the whole family and a raft of vicious yet harmless villains" to make the long story sequences more bearable.
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune described Speed Racer as "buoyant pop entertainment focused on three things: speed, racing and retina-splitting oceans of digitally captured color" that takes place in "a freshly conceived visual universe". He says that "the Wachowskis respect the dynamism of the original drawings, while carving out their own middle ground between computer animation and live action. They respect also the themes of honor, dishonor, family loyalty and Visigoth-inspired barbarism behind the wheel." The cast is praised as being "earnest" and "gently playful". However, he notes that "the film runs an overgenerous two hours and 15 minutes, and it sags in its midsection" with unnecessary dialogue.
Anthony Lane of The New Yorker said the film was "of no conceivable interest to anyone over the age of ten" and that the convoluted plot was "barely worth unpicking". Noting the "lollipop hues", Lane questioned how the film could still end up "bleached of fun", and concluded that the answer was with the theme first mooted by Wachowskis' in The Matrix that "all of us, whether we know it or not, are squirming under the thumb of dark controlling forces". In Speed Racer, Lane argues, this comes in the form of villain Royalton, who "vows to crush [Speed] with 'the unassailable might of money.'" Citing the Wachowskis' involvement in V for Vendetta (2005), Lane said Speed Racer was not as "criminally poor" as that film, but that it was "more insidious". He concluded: "There's something about the ululating crowds who line the action in color-coordinated rows; the desperate skirting of ordinary feelings in favor of the trumped-up variety; the confidence in technology as a spectacle in itself; and, above all, the sense of master manipulators posing as champions of the little people. What does that remind you of? You could call it entertainment, and use it to wow your children for a couple of hours. To me, it felt like Pop fascism, and I would keep them well away."
Glenn Kenny of Premiere describes Speed Racer as "one of the most genuinely confounding films to come along in years". Depending upon the viewpoint, he said, it was either "the most headache-inducing" children's film of all, or the most expensive avant-garde film ever made. He cited the film's time-shifting narrative and multiple storylines in the early stages as evidence of its "radicalization of film language" and said the movie was "likely to inspire even more heavy thinking on the part of cultural theorists than The Matrix did" because of its "blatantly anti-capitalist storylines" and being "a picture that changes the rules of its universe strictly according to its creators' whims". The radical techniques used to tie multiple storylines together, while "impressive to behold", Kenny said, "yields heretofore undreamed of levels of narrative incoherence, but hey, not every experiment succeeds". Kenny praised the film's look, saying the "cheez-whizziness" that others had criticised was "precisely the point". He also said the supporting characters in the race scenes were "brought to life by the Wachowskis with a cheeky relish".
Jim Emerson, editor at the Chicago Sun Times, gave the film 11⁄2 stars out of four and wrote that Speed Racer "is a manufactured widget, a packaged commodity that capitalizes on an anthropomorphized cartoon of Capitalist Evil in order to sell itself and its ancillary products".
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