I was supposed to appear on some panels at a convention this last weekend. I wasn’t able to and had to bow out at the last minute. One of the panels was called “Box Office Bombs That are Better Than You Think”. Early discussion before the con cited one beloved box office bomb above all others: the Wachowski sisters’ “Speed Racer”.
Even if I had to miss the panel, it’s something I still want to write about.
1. We Weren’t Ready for “Speed Racer”
“Speed Racer” is exceptionally good. You may not remember it that way. It was the first film after the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix” trilogy. People expected something dark and gothic, full of dour characters enacting sleek violence on each other. What they got was a sugar rush of color in a live-action cartoon that relied on sight gags and long set-ups to bad puns. In other words, an ideal movie. Just not one we were ready for. Imagine expecting something akin to “The Matrix” and then seeing this:
It also featured one of the best casts assembled that no one will ever think of that way: Emile Hirsch as ambitious racecar driver Speed, Christina Ricci as mechanic and spotter Trixie, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as his parents, Matthew Fox as the controversial Racer X, and the deceptively rangy Roger Allam as villain Royalton.
The supporting cast was both eclectic and diverse, featuring Korean pop heartthrob Rain, original “Shaft” actor Richard Roundtree, and German TV actor Benno Furmann.
2. The Editing is Incredible
This isn’t a perfect film, but one thing I will argue is that the opening 17 minutes is one of the best edited sequences ever put to film. There’s a really magical alternate universe where pop filmmaking looks and feels like this. It didn’t die off with Tim Burton’s taste or get relegated to the Barry Sonnenfeld made-for-TV circuit.
The Wachowskis are two of the few directors who have really taken on this mantle, where CG doesn’t serve to make something look more real, but less so. One of the reasons I love “Speed Racer” is because it looks like it was lifted from someone’s imagination. It’s silly, it’s fun, it’s ridiculous. It has zero interest in telling you how important it is.
The Wachowskis consistently impress because they want to show you what’s sprouting out of their imaginations. We were happy to praise it when it connected to our angst, wore black trench coats, and whipped out guns for slow-motion shootouts. Yet we routinely reject it when it wears bright colors and tells us to be hopeful.
Editing and CG shouldn’t just be used to push the technical limits of the reality we can present – it should also push the imaginative limits, and that’s something that studios haven’t often prioritized in event filmmaking.
3. Rain & the Tragedy of “Ninja Assassin”
A bit more about Korean pop sensation Rain is in order. He plays a racer and an inheritor of a car company that rivals Royalton’s. Unfortunately, this is probably the movie that got him the lead role in James McTeigue’s “Ninja Assassin”. McTeigue is a frequent collaborator with the Wachowski sisters. He was the first assistant director on “The Matrix” trilogy, and a second unit director on “Speed Racer”. His own debut was the surprisingly good “V for Vendetta”.
Here’s what we’re talking about when it comes to “Ninja Assassin”.
The trailer makes it look like the film is constructed entirely of perpetually underlit scenes of bullet-time style throwing stars. It is. It’s actually a really accurate trailer. That trailer just saved you 99 minutes of your life.
The same patience for storytelling and skill for suspense in “V for Vendetta” was not replicated in “Ninja Assassin” (nor in any of McTeigue’s other films). Since it was Rain’s crossover attempt at Western stardom, the film shot down any real chance he’d have at additional lead roles in American films.
4. One Wachowskis Batman, Please
I’d watch a Wachowskis-directed Batman. Just saying. (I once would’ve suggested Matthew Fox for the lead, but am uncomfortable with a past allegation of violence he’s faced.)
The Wachowski sisters know how to build an atmospheric universe and direct a range of fast-paced fight choreography, and they have a wicked sense of casting that would fit the rogues gallery well. “The Matrix”, “Cloud Atlas”, and “Sense8” all prove they know how to make the kind of Batman that would continue to evolve the character and make him relevant, unlike the overstuffed meandering Zack Snyder did with it.
I have confidence in director Matt Reeves (and Robert Pattinson is an inspired choice as his upcoming Batman). I also can’t imagine producers would feel entirely safe trusting the Wachowskis with DC’s most reliable franchise. Still it’d be something I’d like to see.
5. Mini-John Goodman
Paulie Litt’s work in “Speed Racer” is really overlooked. He’d have been 12-ish when this was filmed. Litt plays Spritle Racer, Speed’s little brother, but damned if he’s not doing a spot-on impression of John Goodman at times. He’s doing the cheesy comedic sidekick role in a film overstocked with cheesy comedic sidekicks, and he might be doing the most effective work.
6. There is No Better Dialogue
“Inspector Detector suspected foul play.” Line of the century.
Dialogue of the century?
Trixie: Oh my god, was that a ninja?
Pops: More like a non-ja. Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.
Trixie: Cool beans.
Behold the greatest moment in modern cinema:
What’s best about this is that there’s an entire two minute fight scene that leads up to it. The fight scene is more Three Stooges than Matrix, and it doesn’t ramp up in choreography. It basically exists for a few sight gags, and to create a super-lame pun at the end. In other words, the perfect film does exist.
7. Trixie Keeps Bailing Everyone Out
The part doing the most to make this all work is Christina Ricci’s Trixie. It would have been remarkably easy to just have her there as eye candy, which is where you think her character’s going at first. Then it turns out she’s the most capable person in the film. She’s a helicopter pilot who spots for Speed in his races. She takes over as a race car driver in a death-defying cross-country rally when one driver is incapacitated. She breaks out kung fu skills and beats up henchmen in the middle of a larger brawl. And when the team needs to build a new car in less than a day-and-a-half, she’s front and center welding the thing together.
8. Christina Ricci is Overlooked as Hell
It helps a lot that Ricci has an incredible amount of experience in films that don’t take themselves overly seriously. Her career started with movies like “The Addams Family” and “Casper”, and she’s blazed a trail of leading roles in independent films that challenge the way audiences are used to watching movies. Emile Hirsch was so disgusted with the box office performance of “Speed Racer” that he fired his agent. He never understood the value of a film like this; he only saw it as a career opportunity. That’s ironic, given the theme of the film.
What’s even more ironic is that he starred next to a woman who’s built a successful career out of films that don’t fit particular molds, with box office surprises and failures. Ricci’s done so across a wide range of genres, at a time when it’s been nearly impossible for a woman to put together the resume of leading roles that she’s had.
It occurs to me she doesn’t get near her due when it comes to talking about the greatest actors of her generation. She should be in that conversation. Come to think of it, the same discipline for gaining and losing weight for roles that we routinely celebrate Christian Bale for is something that’s been used against her as a criticism. I can think of only a handful of actors alive today – of any generation – who can so deftly step back and forth between dramatic, indie, comedy, and B-movies with as sure a sense of what to bring to each.
9. A Balanced Gaze
Ricci does serve the male gaze now and again in the film, but they don’t overdo it. The film isn’t too interested in making anyone particularly sexy, but at least there’s equal opportunity here. Rain, Hirsch, and Fox all bare far more skin in this than Trixie does in the occasional mini-skirt. It’s important for films to show this kind of balance.
10. This Editing, Though
I keep thinking of that opening, that first 17-minute sequence that swoops through time and space to introduce us to the major protagonists and their emotional stakes. The Wachowskis do for editing in “Speed Racer” what they did for visual effects in “The Matrix”. The only difference is that it didn’t set the industry on fire. It’s a shame, because their approach is inventive, emotional, and energetic in ways that more traditional editing isn’t. It also challenges the way we’re used to watching movies. I wish I’d seen it inspire others to follow their example. I wouldn’t want all editing to look like this, but I think filmmaking would be a more exciting place if some of these lessons had grown roots and found their way into other projects.
If nothing else, it would take a marketplace where everyone’s trying to create their own connected universe and it would make it feel more aesthetically varied. We’ve got Marvel, DC, X-Men, Star Wars everything, Universal making a mess of its monster properties, LEGO, Hasbro, the Transformers shared universe idiocy, Sony still working on their Valiant Comics thing, and Tom Holland playing therapist between Sony and Disney to hold the Spider-Man universe(s) together by the seams.
Instead, we’re left with most of these franchises trying to do what the last did, with the bar for acceptance being “good enough”. I wouldn’t mind a few more films like “Speed Racer” challenging the sameness and middle ground so many of these franchises fall into. “Speed Racer” may have been a box office bomb, but at least it developed new cinematic language. There are a lot of franchises that haven’t done so much in half a dozen films, let alone one.
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