Steeled for a fight

Special to The Times

The Wachowski brothers' souped up, kaleidoscopic upgrade of "Speed Racer" may look like "The Matrix" on happy pills and feature an A-list cast (including Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox and Susan Sarandon), but the real stars are the tricked-out cars that hurtle along tracks at 300 mph and battle each other midair.

As in its cartoon forebear, Speed's gleaming Mach 5 is outfitted with a few special features that would make even James Bond jealous. Per the Wachowskis' dictate, the gadgets don't stray far from the original versions, just enough to offer up a few surprises.

"There are a couple of different ones that are pretty cool," said lead conceptual designer Jeff Julian. "The jump jacks are probably used the most. The fencing quality of the wheel shields, that's a new thing. But it's hard to beat big, giant saw blades in front of a car."

Hirsch, though, has a special fondness for the stilt-like jump mechanism: "I hit the jump jack button and the machine jumps me up and gives me whiplash," he jokes. Filming in a simulator on hydraulic pumps with pistons, Hirsch felt the full effect of high-speed racing, getting thrown from side to side and shot upward at will. ("It makes you seasick.") And conceivably, he faced the danger a racer might. "The robotics they were using had a lot of power," the actor says. "If you left the machine to its own devices, it could create enough G-forces to break your neck and kill you."

In the film's hyper-reality -- with some 2,000 visual effects -- racers leave the ground in "car fu" battles. "There's one maneuver in which Speed's car spin-flips over an opponent," visual effects supervisor Dan Glass says. "He then spins and crashes his [car's] rear end into the other car to knock it off the track. It's a surprise move, the equivalent of a roundhouse kick."

For the climactic race, Speed's team builds the brand-new rocket-like Mach 6.

"We couldn't change the Mach 5 much, it's too iconic. But the Mach 6 is a true, purpose-built racer," Julian says. "We had this idea of mixing an M-1 Abrams tank with a Formula One car."

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