Speed Racer is a great movie.
The first trailer was one of the worst things I'd ever seen, and it left me completely unenthusiastic. The reviews were worse; I glanced at them on Thursday -- Speed Racer is at 35% on Rotten Tomatoes -- and decided against taking my sons to the movie except at a matinee. (They still have matinees in Los Angeles, though it's usually the very first showing and it's still $6.)
So Sunday morning we got up early, picked up my 12 year old's best friend, a great kid, left my wife to sleep in, and drove down to one of the few theaters I know of that does matinees for cheap ...
And had a blast. This is the movie you'd have made at 12, if you were an astonishing genius and had an unlimited budget. The casting is brilliant -- top to bottom. John Goodman as Pops Racer sold me. Susan Sarandon may have been slumming, but damn, the woman picked the right movie to slum in. Christina Ricci is a perfect Trixie, and the kid playing Spridle (Speed's younger brother) -- was a hoot. Even the monkey had chops.
The core of the movie is the relationship between Racer X (formerly Rex Racer, Speed's older brother, nicely underplayed by Matthew Fox), Pops, and Speed Racer, played with impressive sincerity by Emile Hirsch. If you watched the cartoon, you know the backstory -- Rex Racer and Pops have a falling out, Rex leaves Racer Motors to go on his own ... and then "dies" in a staged accident. He re-emerges years later as "Racer X," a dark and mysterious good guy with an inexplicable soft spot for Speed. The movie's plot doesn't make any more sense than the plots did in the cartoon, and it's fine; it's all an excuse to stage races (and they're great races) where Speed races and beats the bad guys.
They play it straight. That's the core; that's the thing I was most afraid of going to see this. There are plenty of jokes, most of them genuinely funny; the action scenes are hyperkinetic but reasonably coherent for being completely digital; and the high drama of Speed vs. the Bad Guys is played well enough that it doesn't get in the way. But they don't betray the core of the story. The mistakes Pops Racer made with Speed's older brother (and which Rex made with the old man) -- leave scars on everyone concerned. Pops walks around with the ghost of his dead son in every scene; there's a touching moment toward the end when a government agent asks Racer X if he thinks he made a mistake, leading his family to believe he was dead. Matthew Fox shrugs and gives it a moment's thought: "If I did, it's a mistake I'm going to have to live with." Which is the last we see of him, in this movie ...
When Pops and Speed come to the same moment, when the rebellious younger son asserts his own manhood -- John Goodman sells it; he's learned better, learned to control his own pride and anger: and he doesn't make the mistakes with Speed that he made with Rex. Speed is the boy who gets to make good, who gets the love of his father, the love of his girl, and the chance to be the greatest race car driver in the entire world.
Just one wink to the audience, one moment of "yeah, we know how corny this is" -- would have ruined this movie. The Wachowski Brothers don't give us that wink.
This is a great movie. Not "great for the kids," not "great for the boys," not "great for your inner twelve year old" -- great. It's brave and -- sadly -- like two more of my favorite movies, Rustler's Rhapsody and Knightriders -- doesn't look to be making a lot of money. Go see it in theaters while you still can. Ignore the critics. They don't know what they saw and they're wrong.