Japan, land of the rising sun and robot hotels, has its own special brand of crazy. A million different influences are filtered through its unique cultural outlook. This is especially evident in its movies. Sometimes they can be too obsessive to hold my attention. Occasionally they can be so disturbing I don't even want to translate the title, much less watch it. Often, though, they hit a sweet spot between relatable and unexpectedly bizarre. This is why BATTLE ROYALE is so much more interesting than its slick, melodramatic western ripoff, HUNGER GAMES. Japan's cartoons are probably the purest distillation of this. Anime is unbound by anything but imagination. I’ve been out of the anime game for a while, but a recent recommendation pulled me back in. Weirdly, it’s a movie about car racing. For a movie to get me interested in car racing, it would have to be pretty special. REDLINE is pretty special.
Years after transitioning to fancy “air cars”, traditional car racing has gone underground. By traditional racing I mean no rules vehicular mayhem over miles of dangerous terrain driven by aliens and cyborgs firing missiles and grappling hooks at each other. I’m not that familiar with NASCAR, but I’m assuming it’s similar. The most popular and most dangerous of these events is the Redline. The long shot this year is “Sweet” JP, a human rocking a huge pompadour and a badass yellow muscle car. He is only in on a technicality after being “accidentally” blown up by his mobbed up partner Frisbee just before finishing the qualifying race. His competition is considerably more intimidating. There’s Machine Head, a huge cyborg with a piston shaped skull and his own theme music who is literally built into his vehicle. The Mad Brothers, Lynchman and Johnny Boya, are a pair of bounty hunters with a penchant for sabotage. Gori Rider is a renegade cop who plays by his own rules, most of which involve demolishing people. The Super Boins are glammed up psychotic sex starlets from Supergrass, “a planet ruled by a princess with magical powers.” The odds on favorite is Sonoshee, a perky but single minded human racer with a tricked out hover car. The chances of surviving, much less winning, are astronomically low, though, since this year’s Redline is set on Roboworld. The ultraconservative militaristic autocracy that rules Roboworld considers itself the moral paragon of the known galaxy and will stop at nothing to wipe out the lowlife racing scum.
First off the bat, this movie is gorgeous. It is practically all hand drawn cell animation, as far as I can tell. It’s beautiful from the opening frame, and that’s literally a shot of garbage. Scenes of actual pretty things look even better. The animation seems to be a mix of styles, all working perfectly together. Sometimes it reminded me of non-Japanese stuff like Aeon Flux or HEAVY METAL. You don’t need to know shit about animation to appreciate this, though, only eyeballs.
Second off the bat, this movie is mind-bogglingly insane. It’s the kind of movie Vin Diesel’s character from THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS would dream up after watching a STAR WARS marathon while on peyote. There are so many bizarre layers swimming around together that it’s almost overwhelming. There are some parts that are literally indescribable. As in, I cannot figure a way of accurately describing them. They look cool, though.
The alien designs are outstanding. There are dog people, guys with “T” shaped heads, guys with no skin who are extremely emotionally sensitive, tiny parrot headed swindlers in track suits. JP’s partner Frisbee is some kind of reptilian dude with narrow bands of regular flesh across his scaly face, like a stencil pattern. Even his crusty mechanic, Old Man (or Pops, if you are reading the subtitles) is 8 feet tall with four arms and moves around like a spider. After all that, the cyborgs from Roboworld seem quaint.
And speaking of those assholes, Roboworld is a piece of work. It’s like Donald Trump’s vision of a future utopia. The whole moral angle is bullshit, they are just scared people will find out about their sneaky deals and plots. We’re first introduced to the President of Roboworld as he’s complaining about all the refugees on one of their habitable but kind of shitty moons. They can’t touch the racers who are using the moon as sort of an Olympic Village because they gave the refugees autonomy in exchange for staying out of Roboworld proper. Now all they can do is whine about it and try to intimidate the racers. Once they set foot (or wheel, or hover) on Roboworld, though, the top brass plans to obliterate them with an orbital cannon. Luckily, Redline is a big deal in the galaxy, and the organizers sabotage the cannon and cause enough of a diversion to get the competitors in. They are still being dropped into the middle of a war zone, however. Roboworld throws everything they have at the racers, including a massively powerful illegal bioweapon that looks like a giant plasma baby. It’s named Funky Boy. Because why not name your secret superweapon Funky Boy? You would think this was in response to a full scale planetary invasion, but no, it’s just to stop a bunch of racers. Slight overreaction, if you ask me.
Not that the racers themselves are harmless. With the exception of JP, everyone’s vehicle is loaded with missiles, machine guns, eyeball lasers, and other dangerous racing accessories. Some of the missiles have faces and laugh manically when launched. The Super Boins’ lady car transforms into a full-on (and ludicrous) humanoid mecha. All of this is fully sanctioned, even encouraged, by the Redline organizers. They seem oblivious to any corruption or unfair advantages as long as the competition remains popular and brings in the money. You know, kind of like FIFA.
For those of you who thought the physics in the Wachowski’s SPEED RACER was too grounded in reality, REDLINE should be right up your alley. Virtually everything that happens in this movie would kill a normal person. JP goes so fast he begins hemorrhaging from his nose, and that was just in the qualifying race. It would be impossible to control any of these vehicles. The conditions are so extreme that even little Anakin Skywalker would sit this shit out. At one point, JP’s car spins like a top and skips over the water, only to recover afterwards. In the context of this movie, it seems plausible enough. The action is so far over the top, you just go with it.
It gets so crazy near the end that, in order to stop the out of control Funky Boy, one of the Roboworld generals transforms himself into a giant, um, thing? That’s one of the indescribable moments I was talking about. So, suddenly in the middle of a race movie, there’s a huge kaiju (monster) fight. Who wins? No idea. Once the racers get past the battling beasties, it’s never brought up again. If it’s not part of the race, it’s incidental.
At its core, though, REDLINE is a simple underdog sports story. JP is like the lifeline, just hold on to his story and you’ll make it through unharmed. He’s a great anchor for the movie. Even though he’s established as a rebel with a devil-may-care attitude, he’s also a pretty good guy. He has a laid back charm that’s easy to like. He’s fiercely loyal to his friends (even to those who don’t deserve it), relentlessly confident (but not cocky), and fearless. He’s even a romantic. Sonoshee catches his eye because of her racing prowess and determination, not just because she’s a cutie. Their chemistry together is very sweet.
[Spoiler] When Sonoshee’s vehicle is taken out of commission, JP even lets her continue the race in his car. She’s not just a spectator or a passenger. They become a real team, working together towards the common goal. The two of them cozied up in JP’s one person cockpit is pretty sexy, even. It reminded me of the trunk scene with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez from OUT OF SIGHT, except ridiculously more unsafe.
[Even more of a SPOILER] The end of the race takes it just as far as it could possibly go. JP is pushing it so hard in the last stretch against Machine Head that his car completely disintegrates. His and Sonoshee’s bodies are sent hurling across the finish line a millisecond before Machine Head. Either there was some kind of anti-gravity safety net or it was a mystically transcending experience, because they just float together in each other’s arms instead of becoming red paste. The best thing, though, is the reactions of all the other racers. They are all happy for JP and Sonoshee, even the ones who were trying to kill them a few minutes before. I think it’s because they know it was an amazing finish to the race. And it’s all about the race.