Watching Speed Racer is like immersing yourself in a gigantic video game. The only thing lacking is a controller that allows you to steer these futuristic cars as they careen wildly around the loops and sharp turns of a computer animated track.
The film, based on Japanese anime, is the story of the Racer family who builds and competes in their high-powered speedsters. Although a modest enterprise, their business has managed to maintain a presence on the circuit, thanks in part to the parents' (John Goodman, Susan Sarandon) gifted children. Even as a young man, their oldest son Rex (Scott Porter) has amassed a bevy of unbroken speed records.
But, the family's future in the industry hits gravel when Rex is killed in a grueling cross-country race known as The Crucible. Having argued before his son's departure, Pops is reluctant to go back to the garage, especially after repeatedly watching the fiery accident on their TV set. It appears to be enough to squelch their need to burn rubber... at least temporarily. However, their next son, Speed (Emile Hirsch), exhibits the same passion and talent for motor sport as his older brother. When his father finally ventures back into the shop, Speed is there and ready to drive.
As his own records start to stack up, the young lead foot is approached by numerous sponsors, all hoping to attach their logo to the up-and-coming driver. Among them is Royalton (Roger Allam), the owner of a stable of competitors who repeatedly make it into the victory circle. Inviting Speed and his family to his palatial office, he lays out all the perks of driving under his banner in an effort to convince the young man to join him. But Speed suspects there is more to this man's offer than is initially apparent.
Also not immediately evident is the amount of violence involved in the depiction of these high-speed chases. Like video games, much of the action involves beefed up hot-rods sliding around hairpin turns, vying for the inside lane and gunning it for the checkered flag. Yet as these vehicles bump and jostle for position, their maneuvering often results in cars flying over the embankment or exploding into flames. During The Crucible, the tactics get even dirtier as teams outfit their machines with illegal spikes, hooks and secret weapons meant to take out their opponent. When these devices don't work, the thugs resort to bloody beatings, threats and gunplay to get their point across.
The real roadblock, though, is determining the film's appropriate audience. The thrill of racing and the intense action is likely to capture the attention of teens as Speed deftly dodges flying debris and a surplus of opposition from big business interests and other drivers. Despite dealing with grief and the angst of raising children, his family also manages to stick together during their tough times and offer support for their children's dreams. But for younger kids, who are more interested in the supercharged cars and the comical antics of Speed's younger brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), the accelerating violence and gangster-like tactics may be more of a moving violation than some parents will want to put up with.