Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and their guests dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, Leah’s here to extol the delights of the opening 17 minutes of Speed Racer.
Allow me to begin with a confession: until last week I had never seen the Wachowski Sisters’ other other other masterpiece, 2008’s Speed Racer, and now that I’ve seen it, I lament my long Speed Racer-less years. I’m telling you this because it’s possible that what I’m about to talk about has already occurred to you, if you, unlike me, have more Speed Racer fluency.
The opening 17 minutes of speed Racer may be the best opening of any film, ever.
Speed Racer‘s opening scenes are a gradually unfolding miracle of context clues, nested flashbacks, origin stories, and character motivation that seed every single relationship and conflict that are explored for the ensuing two hours. People dunk on the second and third Matrixes, and Cloud Atlas, and, well, Jupiter Ascending, and, um, Resurrections for being baggy and overstuffed, but the first 17 minutes of this film are somehow both the most efficient storytelling I’ve ever seen, and the most exuberant.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Every once in a while, a tweet will come across my feed that’s some variation on “when you see a fucked up version of the movie studio logo you know it’s about to go OFF”. Included in the images is, inevitably, the glowing acid green WB that we all saw right before the Matrix fed our heads back in 1999. But I would contend that the best “Fucked Up Version of the Movie Studio Logo Award goes to Speed Racer.
Before we even get to the WB logo we’re washed in a swirling kaleidoscope of color that spins and spins until:
But even then we don’t get opening credits, yet, just the orange-and-yellow checker of the classic Speed Racer logo. And then we’re in the movie. No credits, not yet. No full theme song. No date, or geographical info. We’re in a quiet locker room, looking at a white jumpsuited person’s back. Their red-socked foot jiggles up and down.
From here I’m going to walk you through the next few minutes in bullet points. Please understand, I’ve simplified and clarified and boiled down as much as I can to make this all clear. What follows is the action of the next 16-ish moments of film, or moments of digital code, probably, since this is the Wachowskis.
- Adult Speed sits in front of his locker, red-socked foot jiggling nervously.
- Zoom in on sock, flashcut to the yellow, graffitied Converse of Kid Speed sitting at his school desk taking a test.
- Cut to Mom Racer, listening (and trying not to laugh) as Speed’s teacher tells Mom that her son only cares about racing, and Mom explains that Speed’s father builds racecars. The teacher shows Mom a test that’s been bubbled in to say “Go Rex Go”, and Mom explains that Rex is Speed’s older brother, and a racecar driver. (Is this a flash forward, showing us the result of the test Speed is currently working on? Or is this a flashback to a different test? The Wachowskis decline to tell us, implying that this test, and this conversation, could happen at any time in the continuum of Speed’s life.)
- Then we’re back in Kid Speed’s mind as he imagines himself racing cartoons in an explosion of color and speed-lines. He is, of course, making revving sounds as he does this, and the camera gradually pans over to Kid Trixie, who grins at him from a few desks away.
- The bell rings, Speed bolts off, and we hear his teacher yelling “Speed Racer, slow down!” as he darts into the street. (This is important later.)
- Then, from Speed’s POV, we see: Rex Racer, impossibly cool older brother, leaning against his car, the Mach 4.
- After some cajoling, Rex agrees to take Speed to the track—but only because Speed is wearing the red socks.
- Then we’re back in the locker room, present day, as Speed (in the red socks) gazes at a worn photo of Rex. He takes it with him, along with his racing helmet.
- Then we’re back in the past, on the track, as Rex is letting Speed sit in his lap to drive the Mach 4. He advises him to “close your eyes and listen” to the car.
- Now we’re back in the present, on the track, Adult Speed racing and listening to his car.
- As the race continues, the talking heads of sports commenters slide across footage, followed by Sparky the Pit Boss warning Speed about rival racer Snake Oiler, and then we see Oiler as he tries and fails to take Speed down.
- As Snake Oiler crashes, a weird digital egg seems to enclose him and carry him away, a la The Prisoner.
- Speed remembers Rex’s red car on the track (we see it from his POV as a blurry echo of Rex’s car racing just ahead of his) and Speed’s memory blurs into a flashback as Kid Speed, Pops, and Mom Racer watch from the bleachers as Rex sets the track record.
- We see two officials yelling at each other for failing to take Rex out.
- Now we’re back in the present, on the track, as Speed’s present-day car slides through his memory of Rex’s car. (Sorry have I used the word MASTERPIECE too many times yet? MASTERPIECE.)
- Again, the sports commenters slide across the action, discussing Rex, and we cut to the bleachers as Present Day Pops watches Speed race, then we see Speed’s little brother Spritel, and Spitel’s, um, pet chimp, Chim-Chim. (Look, not everything from a 1960s-era anime is gonna translate well.)
- Pops and Spritel are both timing Speed.
- We cut to Adult Trixie and as the camera zooms in we go into her mind. Kid Trixie socks another girl in the face for calling Speed a slur. (I’m a pacifist, but uhhh, throw that punch, Trixie.) Kid Speed, seeing this, crashes his soapbox racing car, and the two formally meet when she runs to the crash site.
- Kid Speed brings Kid Trixie home, she meets Pops and Rex, and then Rex realizes the fan mail he’s received has a bomb in it and uses Speed’s soapbox car to roll it into the street, where it explodes. Kid Trixie murmurs “Cool beans” as the flames pour out, and we cut back to Adult Trixie in the bleachers, smiling at the memory.
- More newscasters telling the story of Rex’s seeming heel turn.
- Then we cut to speed’s memory of Rex’s last night at home. Rex is leaving. He gives Speed the keys to the Mach 4, and says that his little brother might hear people saying bad stuff about him in the future. “No matter what they say I hope you never believe them.” Speed says he won’t, and the brothers embrace.
- Rex walks into the living room, he and Pops exchange harsh words, and Pops says “You walk out that door now, you better not ever come back.”
- As the door slams shut, we cut back to Present Day Pops in the bleachers, startled and shaking himself out of the memory as he watches Speed race.
- The camera pans over to Mom Racer, and then dissolves into her memory of watching Rex race on TV before Pops tells Speed to turn it off.
- Present Day Sports Commenters slide in again to vilify Rex some more.
- Then we cut to Speed on the track, crying as he drives, and we zoom into a memory of Kid Speed watching his brother race in secret, with one Past Sports Commenter saying “There is no doubt in my mind that Rex Racer is one of the dirtiest drivers in the world.”
- We cut back to the track for a second, as Adult Speed continues to cry, and then we’re back in his memory as Kid Speed punches a classmate to defend Rex’s honor.
- Cut back to Adult Speed, still in tears as he drives.
- Then we cut to a glass of wine falling from Past Mom Racer’s hand as Rex’s deadly accident plays on TV.
- Cut to a wide shot of the Racer Family and Trixie staring at the TV in horror.
- Cut to Mom holding Speed as he sobs; the camera slides over to show Pops watching them from the bedroom doorway.
- Present Day Mom slides onto the screen, one tear running down her face as she remembers her older son, and watches her middle son from the bleachers. The camera pans over to include Pops sitting next to her, and the two look at each other as the scoreboard slides onto screen from the other side and shows Speed’s current race time ticking closer to Rex’s track record.
- Then we’re back with Speed, still crying as he pulls up beside his memory of Rex’s car, and then he lifts his foot, tears streaming down his face, and slides across the finish line one second short of his brother’s record.
- We cut to Trixie sighing and smiling in the stands, and Mom and Pops embracing.
- And then the intensity is cut by Spritel yelling at the adults to go to Victory Lap.
By the end of this opening 17 minutes, we know our main characters, we know their backstory, their traumas, their motivation, their driving passions.
Everything in this opening works toward two points, or maybe three: Speed Racer loves speed, and loves racing; Rex Racer was Speed’s idol, but then he (seemingly) turned evil and betrayed his family and RACING ITSELF for inexplicable reasons; the Racer family still love and support each other even after the tragedy of Rex’s betrayal (???) and death. The audience also finds out that there are nefarious forces at work and they were targeting Rex, which sets up Speed’s own temptation/redemption arc. Each cut functions like that opening kaleidoscope, turning and turning endlessly around the questions of why Rex did it, whether Speed will outrace him, and whether he’ll avoid his brother’s fate. Each shift in the film’s color palette tells its own story, as the brightness of Speed’s childhood gives way to dark blues and purples after Rex leaves. Present Day, years after the tragedy of Rex’s death, is a mix: the race is happening at night, but the Racer family are dots of color, and Speed’s car glows white as it races the darker red blur of Rex’s memory. The supporting characters each get a moment in the sun, with Sparky (Somewhat hapless comic relief for most of the film) acting as a sharp pair of eyes for Speed, and Trixie getting a flashback that show the viewer she’s not just “the girlfriend”—she’s ready to fight for weirdos and enjoys a good explosion.
And of course the Racer parents get their own entire arc threaded through the race: Pops is haunted by the way he drove his elder son away, which sets up his later relationship with Speed. Mom Racer is amused by her younger son’s single-mindedness, but she genuinely supports him (and later gets the best monologue in the film encouraging her son in his art as a racer). Both parents are caught between wanting Speed to be the best, and wanting the son they lost to remain immortal as a record holder.But maybe the most important thing in this opening is that we learn that Speed still believes in his brother, despite everything. It’s this belief that drives him as he fights to save his family from all the evil racing corporations that want to co-opt his talent and swallow their independent team whole.
And then there are the tiny details and nuances, which I’m sure I missed a lot but here are the ones that jumped out at me—and please imagine me jumping up and down in front of you, your lapels in my fists, as I yell all of this info into your face (lovingly, and immediately after at least two negative COVID tests):
The teacher, yelling “Speed Racer slow down!” is both an early (slight) villain, a square holding Speed back from his destiny, but as her words echo into the future they become a warning: Speed Racer does need to slow down if he wants to spare Rex’s record.
Mom and Pops are slightly, slightly, relieved that they don’t have to watch their middle son break their elder son’s track record today—an artifact of the time before Rex’s betrayal and death.
The major flashbacks are signaled as the camera pushes in to each character’s face, and we see Mom at Speed’s school and later comforting Speed, but we also get the Wine Glass Moment, where the news of Rex’s death hits her and we’re just with her in her shock and grief, and we’re just with her for a second before we see the whole family together. Pops’ memory is about his own feelings of failure as he remembers rejecting Rex. But then Trixie, a generation younger and with her whole future ahead, flashes back to a brightly colored memory of standing up for her friend, and being welcomed into the Racer family by a jovial Pops and an action-hero Rex. Each time the camera drops us back into the present, we see the regret written into Mom and Pops’ faces, hovering just beneath their pride in Speed. But with Trixie we see a confident, happy young woman, watching her boyfriend race through binoculars that match her fabulous opera gloves. She relaxes when Speed fails to break Rex’s record (and I’d be willing to bet that she’s the only one who knows he’s doing it intentionally) but everything about her body language shows a straightforward joy in watching the race.
I could write a whole essay on how perfect every performance is in this film, and how all the actors invest their characters with weight that balances the cartoonish action and production design, but… this one is already way longer than it was supposed to be.
But one last thing: how does this opening end, and drive us up the on-ramp into the rest of the plot? In a film about the crushing weight of capitalism and corruption, a film where people who love racing are bludgeoned into betraying themselves and their craft, where every racer except Speed (and maybe Racer X) throw all of their races? We meet Speed as he throws a race. Not for money, reader, but for love.
Yes, Leah Schnelbach has incorporated “Get this weak shit off my track” into their lexicon, why do you ask? Come join them in the death throes of Twitter!