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Friday, Oct. 8, 2010
No need for speed: Chase flick outstays its welcome
I was into car chase movies for about two minutes in the 1970s — "Bullit," "The French Connection," "Duel" — but they quickly became cliches, then jokes. "Smokey and the Bandit," "Cannonball Run" and — need I say more?
I still get the old rush occasionally — "The Bourne Identity" had vehicular thrills aplenty, as did, in its own demented way, "Death Proof" — but I now feel that car chases or races, like sex scenes, quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. After 10 minutes, I'm usually looking for an exit ramp. A sign of advancing geezerhood? Probably.
The biggest Japanese contribution to this genre, internationally at least, has long been the anime "Speed Racer" — though not the tiresome live-action remake by the Wachowskis.
Now Katsuhito Ishii, who made an international splash with the quirky comedies "Cha no Aji (The Taste of Tea)" (2004) and "Naisu no Mori: The First Contact (Funky Forest: The First Contact)" (2005), among others, has joined with first-time feature director Takeshi Koike and the Madhouse studio to make the race-themed anime "Redline."
Based on an original story by Ishii, who also served as coscriptwriter, creative director and character designer, "Redline" is all about visceral thrills that peak in the first slam-bang, headlong race scene. The film then spends the next 90 minutes trying to top this opener — about 90 minutes too long for me.
The whimsical imaginative flights and puckish humor of Ishii's live-action work are in short supply: "Redline" is as cute and funny as a buzzsaw — or the pulsing, slamming techno music that accompanies the film, supplied by James Shimoji.
But those who liked the animated segments of "Kill Bill Vol. 1," for which Ishii was character designer, and "Cha no Aji" and "Naisu no Mori," on which Koike worked as animator, will probably also like the stylistics of "Redline," which makes the sexy big-eyed babes, comically grotesque villains and fanatically detailed mecha of standard sci-fi anime darker, stranger and more kinetic.
This look may be eyelid-peelingly edgy, but the hand-drawn, 2-D technology used to achieve it is defiantly old-school. If nothing else, Ishii, Koike and their Madhouse team have proven that 2-D can still be hell on wheels — and more power to them.
Their story is also old-school — and not always in a good way. The hero is J.P. (voiced by Takuya Kimura), a race car driver who has the look of an Elvis-era J.D. (juvenile delinquent) with his black-leather jacket and hair greased in a mile-high quiff. His era, however, is a distant future where race cars no longer burn up rubber but rather blaze through the air.
His ambition is to compete in Redline, a race of races held only once every five years that draws elite drivers from all over the galaxy, who unleash lethal weaponry to win — with the rules, such as they are, permitting it.
First, though, J.P. has to qualify by winning a preliminary race called Yellowline. Among his competitors is Sonoshi (Yu Aoi), who may look scrumptious in her form-fitting yellow- orange race suit but is all business on the track. When they are zooming nose-to-nose, their eyes lock, and J.P. falls head over heels for her — and ends up second.
Distraction is not the only reason, though: His grizzled mechanic Frisbee (Tadanobu Asano) has been muscled into betraying him by a beefy gang boss — and J.P. is lucky to escape the race with his life.
He ends up in the Redline race anyway through a fan popularity vote — a realistic touch there. The circuit, however, is on a planet called Robo World, whose rulers want nothing to do with the race, since they are afraid it will expose the massive arms buildup behind their peaceful facade. As the racers prep their cars, Robo World big-wigs plot their destruction.
Instead of interesting complications, from this point the films gives us standard-issue celebrations of love, friendship and pure-heartedness. This may be Ishii, who is something of a nostalgist, recycling beloved tropes from the anime favorites of his childhood. It may also be calculation by producers aiming at the overseas market — and thinking that foreigners like "classic" elements in their anime, shopworn or no.
One of those elements is a talky script, with the characters commenting and bantering incessantly, often from car to roaring car and in most dire of circumstances. In the old sci-fi anime made on the cheap for TV, the nonstop dialogue added layers of story-telling texture that the rather simple, limited animation could not supply. But "Redline," which took seven years and 100,000 drawings to make, is about as visually unlimited and sophisticated as Japanese anime gets — and the constant talk-talk dilutes the impact. It's as if, in the chase under the elevated tracks sequence in "The French Connection," Gene Hackman were jabbering with his girlfriend on a (then nonexistent) hands-free cell phone — it wouldn't have been the same.
But the first 10 minutes are terrific.