Redline is an odd film to think about. At its very well-presented surface there are racecars with rocket launchers that seem to fulfill a base desire for wanton destruction. But with such bombast in the film, it would be easy to assume the writing is shallow, isn’t great, or is even bad. That Redline actually has solid storytelling to go along with its senseless action is as much of a surprise to me is at might be to you.
But yes, the film does indeed have racecars/mechs/boats/whatever with rocket launchers as the first few minutes will prove. But the race the contestants are in isn’t the namesake, but a qualifying event called Yellowline. The story itself follows the exploits of JP, who lives and breathes racing, but unlike the other contestants his ride isn’t armed to the windshield. As Yellowline concludes, an unfortunate event causes him to lose the race, but as preparation for Redline starts, a string of coincidences give him another chance to compete in the race.
From there, most of the film spends its time building character relationships and motivations. I would say world building, but most if it is made on the spot for whatever would be cool to happen in that situation. The titular race is going to take place on Roboworld, a planet whose rulers really don’t want the race taking place there. Somehow, they’re obligated enough to let the racing committee set up shop for the race, but violent enough to attack the racers, whether at a diner or at the race itself. Said racing committee has rules about race rigging to protect its entrants, despite all of the racers being allowed to drive what are effectively war vehicles. Yeah. Really.
Don’t mistake my facetiousness for disdain though. There’s a certain charm in knowing that flirtatious twins who command a racing stripper mech...come from the royalty of a magical kingdom planet. And the incompetence of Roboworld’s rulers makes the thought of how they run the planet humorous. Very little of the setting from its rules on racing to eligibility for racing don’t align. The racing committee has rules in place to protect its entrants, but they don’t seem to mind letting a police officer and the convict he’s chasing compete. The only consistency here is how inconsistent everything is. It’s cool things for the sake of cool things.
But back to the characters, all of them are fairly archetypical. JP is the typical cool cat who lives for glory, Sonoshee the sexy love interest, and Frisbee the manager and friend who makes the tough decisions. There’s nothing else to say about them individually, but together their naturally connected backstories give a surprising amount of weight to their relationships. These backstories don’t say much, but they unfold in a deliberate pace to give an otherwise brash film a surprising amount of heart. It’s just a shame the main trio is held back by the film’s need to try and flesh out other characters.
But that doesn’t mean all of the other characters were poorly realized. Big Robot and Crybaby Robot (seriously, you won’t remember them by name) are naturally introduced as JP and his epic pompadour go around scouting out the competition. The other characters, not so much. They’re introduced in a brief way that makes sense, but at the same time it’s easy to spot that their only purpose will be an excuse to create explosions at the Redline race. If the film didn’t waste time to pretend it cares about its other characters, then that time could be used on the main trio to make them something more than solid.
Of course, watching this film for the deeper meaning of what it means to win or for a character study on JP would be missing the point. The reason to watch Redline is for its final act, where studio Madhouse delivers on the film’s tagline to ‘WITNESS THE FUTURE OF ANIMATION.’ Instead of seeing the visuals take shortcuts to give the illusion of speed, speed is seen as racers take shortcuts within the visuals. Every vibration from their engines shifts each vehicle ever so slightly as even their hair sways with each skid and drift. It’s smaller details on top of fast-swerving objects against gorgeous backdrops.
Part of what makes the backdrops—and characters—gorgeous is the artstyle of saturated contrast. Colors that are normally dull manage to shine, colors that normally shine are brilliant, and shadows don’t give colors varying shades, but are pure black and used to highlight details for stylistic effect. It’s an artstyle of extremes that creates subtlety to be appreciated during the slower moments of the film. And even when the film gains speed, the visuals never lose their radiance and detail.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack is underwhelming—not bad—by comparison. The number of distinct pieces can be counted on one hand. They’re fun while they play during parts of each race, but the limited number of tracks makes the action slightly boring to hear (but it’s always fun to watch). I say slightly boring because character dialog thankfully picks up the musical slack, as the refreshing trash talk between contestants breaks the monotony of engines roaring. The non-action parts of the film especially rely on dialog to keeps things interesting, and for the most part it succeeds.
But it’s that non-action part of the film that I need to bring special attention to. Understandably, a film focused on spectacle still needs compelling enough characters to make the action worth caring about. And they ARE solid characters. At the same time, ‘solid’ might not be enough to hold everyone’s interest for most of the film, especially when it’s the animation—the action-packed animation—that’s the main draw of the film. For a story with characters who make split-second decisions, viewers will ironically need a small measure of patience.
Still, these faults aren’t enough to make Redline a bad or even average film. It’s uneventful moments are still energetic, the setting pulls off a casual disregard of consistency for coolness, and the character interaction believably builds backstory. Overall, no part of the film is ‘bad’ because even its weakest parts are still ‘good.’ With just enough human drama to accelerate the spectacle of racecars with rocket launchers, Redline will leave you at the edge of your driver’s seat.