Speed Racer is a coming of age story where a young boy figures out what to believe in and what's most important in his life. Speed Racer is also a film where cars of the future zoom around gravity defying tracks racing and battling for victory. Speed Racer is in fact both of these movies at once because it's an action film that tells its story through the action of racing. Not only are all the significant actions of the main character directly tied to racing, but every other character and element in the story is as well. If Speed Racer was a video game, the primary function RACING would be fully harmonized throughout the entire work.
- Speed Racer. First of all, with a name like that, you must be destined to be a great racer. Racing is in Speed's blood and it's also in his name. From the opening of the movie we learn that Speed isn't the best student. This kid's mind is focused on one thing; Racing. It's what makes sense to him: "But when I'm in a T180, I don't know. Everything just makes sense." Everything that's important in Speeds life is connected to racing. After hearing Royalton's racing "education," Speed felt like the whole foundation of his life was crumbling. Speed felt that this revelation was "crushing everything in [his] life that matter[ed] to [him]" After Fuji, Speed wanted to make a difference in the world of racing. And he sought to do so by racing. After all, that's all Speed knew: "But [racing is] the only thing I know how to do and I gotta do something." After failing to change the world of racing through his efforts at Casa Cristo, Speed lost his drive to race. As if following the words of Racer X, by the end of the film Speed is changed by racing and the love of his family/friends: "It doesn't matter if racing never changes. What matters is if we let racing change us" Racer X.
- Pops, Speed's dad, is the owner of their family business Racer Motors. After losing one son to racing, Pops is careful not to make the same mistakes again. At Casa Cristo, Pops witnesses his son grow up. For the first time, Speed stood up for what he believed in (by racing) and tried to make a difference against all odds: "I saw my son become a man."
- Mom Racer, Speed's mother, admires her son's racing as an art form.
- Rex, Speed's brothers, is a talented racer that developed a strong bond with young Speed on the race track. Rex tried to make a difference in the corrupt world by sacrificing his family, fame, and even his face to become Racer X. Though there are few who know his true motives, most see Racer X as the "harbinger of boom" due to the path of destruction he leaves in his wake. To respect and keep his brother's legacy alive, at the beginning of the film Speed slows down so that he wouldn't break Rex's race record at Thunderhead.
- Trixie, Speed's girlfriend, is a fellow racer who wants Speed to reminder her of his commitment by kissing her after winning a big race.
- Royalton is a corrupt, devilish business man. All that matters to this character is power and money: "All that matters is power and the unassailable might of money" As he heads his corporation, his current and future success hinge on his ability to manipulate the outcome of races, particularly the Grand Prix. Royalton's corporation isn't the only one linked to racing. Togokahn business is also linked to the outcomes of these races.
- Racing Religion: Racing isn't just a sport. To Pops and the rest of the Racer family, racing is their lives: "For my family, racing's everything." Racing "is like a religion." Royalton only believes in money and power: "That's my religion."
- Cars are more than machines: You might think cars are just vehicles, but some of the characters in Speed Racer think otherwise: "A car's a living breathing thing. She's alive. You can feel her talking to you telling you what she needs. All you need to do is to listen. Close your eyes and listen" Rex Racer. This idea contributes to the spirituality of racing thus supporting the "racing religion" motif.
- Changing the World: When Speed decided to race a Casa Cristo, he was trying to change the world of racing through racing. Previously, Racer X and Taejo Togokhan tried to do the same. "You think you can drive a car and save the world? It doesn't work like that " Pops in a statement that couldn't be more wrong. At the end of the film, Speed's victory in the Grand Prix helps send Royalton to jail thus changing the world of racing forever: "It's a whole new world baby. A whole new world" Ben Burns the announcer and retired Grand Prix winner.
It's easy to follow the story centered around Speed by looking at the races and the events that come as a direct result of the various races throughout the film. In chronological order...
- Speed Racer grows up in a loving family devoted to racing.
- Speed's brother Rex appears to be killed in a racing accident.
- Speed wins at Thunderhead and preserves his brother's memory and good name.
- Speed is introduced to Royalton and his "family."
- Speed declines Royalton's offer and is presented with a striking truth about "real racing"
- Speed loses the Fuji race like Royalton predicted and questions his faith in racing: "Maybe Royalton's right."
- Speed enters and wins the race at Casa Cristo in attempt to fight Royalton's evil corporate power.
- Speed finds out he had been used and vents on the racing track at Thunderhead.
- Speed gets an opportunity to race in the Grand Prix and his family/friends pull together to prepare.
- Speed wins the Grand Prix and changes the world.
Speed Racer's 3 major victories (in bold) organize the story nicely according to Speeds developmental state from innocence, doubt, searching, and finally to victory/understanding.
The race car action in Speed Racer was designed in a way to give the cars a way to do battle and race at the same time. Such a design gave the choreographers a broader range/definition to work with in order to keep the scenes interesting throughout the film.
- Unlike racing in real life, the cars in Speed Racer go far beyond convention practices. Taking the Tokyo drifting style to the extreme, cars slide around the track at high speeds. Snaking from left to right is the norm, and spinning down the track not uncommon.
- Cars are personal extensions of the drivers. In a normal race, cars avoid bumping and running into each other. In the world of Speed Racer, the race cars are more like bumper cars. Free to bump, push, slam, and ricochet around the track and each other, the film was able to communicate a very human like aggression between the vehicles.
- Finally, the special moves that the cars are equipped with are like fighting moves in a martial arts film. From buzz saws (attacking), spear hooks (grabbing), jumps, to bullet proof shields (blocking), the cars truly seem alive as they move and fight like humans.
Development and Climax
The development of a good action film is simple. To build a powerful climax you don't want to give away everything at the beginning or the middle. It's best to save the best ideas for the climax including special moves and unique ideas. The more a story links into its climax (motivations, goals, characters) the more impactful the climax will be.
Let's look at how the action develops in Speed Racer.
- Training with Rex when Speed was a kid to go over some of the basics of racing.
- A relatively simple race at Thunderhead. Speed had to use a jump maneuver to avoid a major collision.
- At Fuji Speed did his best, but was ultimately brought down by the spear hook. Experienced some team work with Racer X.
- Throughout the race at Casa Cristo the team (Speed, Racer X, and Taejo) used many tricks to counteract all the illegal tools the other racers had smuggled into the competition.
- At the Grand Prix all of Speed's fancy gadgets are gone. Armed with only the jump springs Speed out races the defending champ, defeats the spear hook attack, counters all the dirty tricks thrown his way, overcomes a system stall, and out races the rest of the competition twice! Everything that the audience has experience in the movie is brought up again to show how much Speed has grown. And with everything in the film centered around racing (particularly the outcome of this race), this climax carried so much more weight.
Many action films fall flat with their climaxes because they put their most interesting action scene at the beginning or middle of the film. By the time the film makes it to the climax, the finish underwhelms. This is bad enough. But when such movies community the main story, themes, and messages of the film outside of the action, the focus of the movie and the storytelling splits.
By picking one action, linking every character, theme, and motif to this action, and developing that action so that each scene builds and supports the climax, you'll have the core of a great action film like Speed Racer.