If you like the genre, ‘Speed Racer’ is for you

“Speed Racer” is new to DVD.

The Wachowski Bothers’ (“The Matrix”) ambitious, live-action adaptation of the 1967 anime television series was one of the first big summer releases.

However, it ultimately became one of the summer’s bigger flops. The Wachowski’s attempt to bring one of their favorite childhood heroes to the big screen was not very well received, either by movie goers or critics. But. how does the film rate in my book? My answer may come as a complete surprise to some readers and viewers.

The feature opens with two contrasting and frequently shifting scenarios — one shows the film’s protagonist, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), in present time as he participates in a fierce race; the second shows Speed’s childhood and how his obvious passion for racing dominated his every thought.

As Speed draws closer to the finish line, flashbacks recall Speed’s admiration for his older brother, Rex Racer, who made the controversial choice to withdraw from his family’s independently sponsored race team to compete for a sinister crime lord. Rex’s decision was meant for his family’s protection, but the choice cost him his reputation, and ultimately his life.

Thanks to his flawless driving skills, Speed smashes the competition and takes first in the race.

The following day, Speed’s family is approached by Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), the owner of the corporate mega-giant Royalton Industries. Royalton gives the Racer family a tour of his enterprise’s headquarters and offers Speed a racing contract that would bestow upon him and his family many luxurious benefits.

However, Speed’s father, Pops Racer (John Goodman), is extremely mistrustful of such super-corporations. Given the sensitivity of Pops’ thoughts, Speed takes time to think the offer over, only to return to Royalton with a respectful rejection of the contract.

Instead of disappointment, Speed is met with serious aggression by Royalton. Speed soon becomes a target on the racetracks for Royalton and whoever he pays to knock Speed out of the races. He soon realizes just how corrupted the racing industry has become due to the chokehold the mega-conglomerates have on it. With his career and life at risk, Speed makes an alliance with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and what very few untainted drivers are left to combat Royalton and his cronies in the races to restore and preserve the integrity of the sport of racing.

With the production clocking in at just over two hours, the Wachowskis take the opportunity to capitalize on their story and characters. The first 50 minutes are mostly setup and introductory with an occasional race, before charging head-first into the bulk of the action.

The Racer family is well developed, acted by a sensibly chosen cast. Speed and his family show genuine bonds as well as genuine scars from their loss of Rex. Each of the actors are solid in their roles, and give likeable performances — particularly Paulie Litt as Speed’s younger brother, Spritle, who along with his simian sidekick Chim Chim provide most, if not all the comic relief for the film.

The visual effects are certainly an eyeful. The Wachowski Brothers create a unique world for “Speed Racer,” mixing elements of a blindingly florescent, distant-future-with-a-retro-’60s look. The races are intense, over-the-top and excessively stylized. The wild, winding arcade-style courses, frenetic speed, and sharp editing and camera work make for truly delirious and exhausting action, if not a borderline seizure-inducing experience.

The Wachowskis remain faithful to the style of the original series. However, their decision to keep the film family oriented with a PG rating may make or break it with some viewers. None of the Wachowskis’ past works have ever been rated anything lower than R, and “Speed Racer” pushes its rating across a very thin line into PG-13 territory.

The film emphasizes the story of a family recovering from a tragic loss. It also focuses on corporate corruption and how high-powered businessmen manipulate and control events for profit. While the film is targeted toward a family audience and has its fair share of lightheartedness, such mature themes may seem a little too complex for younger viewers.

The races are outrageously entertaining, but they are very intense with some vehicles crashing violently and exploding in every race. While the drivers safely eject themselves, avoiding injury, such scenes can be a bit overwhelming for some younger children.

For a lot of viewers though, it will be strictly a “love it, or hate it” affair. As for me — I loved it, and more than I thought I would. “Speed Racer” is a great piece of eye candy for the right audience, but can quickly become tiresome for those who do not appreciate the genre for what it is.

With the film tanking at the box office, the DVD is expectedly short on special features. The features on the disc are an on-set tour with Paulie Litt, a featurette on the various racers, race tracks, and car designs in the film and, finally, a digital copy of the film to download onto your PC.