The promise of Redline – wunderkind animator Takeshi Koike's baby that's been in the womb for nearly a decade now – is fulfilled inside the film's first seven minutes or so.
In those first seven minutes, we're treated to the following: a fascinating, high-contrast sci-fi world where every frame is packed to the gills with unique alien designs, and an absolutely thrilling combat racing sequence where, in a handful of efficient cutaway moments, our hero JP's weaknesses are set up. We meet his eventual love interest, the sparky, confident Sonoshee and her awesome amphibious crab car, and we're given the promise that this race is nowhere near as crazy as it's going to get, all animated with the kind of luscious opulence we thought might've been lost forever when they ditched hand-drawn animation for good in favor of an all-digital system. That's what you get in the first seven minutes.
Then the title sequence starts and a sultry voice announces that this was directed by Koike, and you realize you have a full hour and a half left of this glorious thing.
Redline is, effectively, the full package. While doubtlessly the visuals were the chief area of concern for the filmmakers – the visual splendor on display being an eternal testament to that fact – the story's no slouch either, and that's a big part of what makes this film so special. It's a cool, engaging sci-fi premise with a load of promise: a massive, illegal no-rules race drops itself on a planet overflowing with crazy experimental weaponry, and the contestants have to fight both eachother and the planet's military occupiers for a spot at that sweet finish line. The amazing thing about how Redline pulls this story off is precisely in the few things it very specifically doesn't do: excessive sci-fi worldbuilding and exposition that doesn't have anything to do with the film's most basic story is kept to a minimum, and we're given just enough detail about what's happening to be able to keep up. At no point is the story even a little confusing, even with all the moving story parts that are happening at once – miraculously, it all holds together and makes it through to the end without becoming a baffling morass of sequel setups, worthless secondary villain motivation or all the other things that tend to trip up sprawling sci-fi like this. All that falderal is mercifully absent here, leaving us with a lean story that allows us to cheer on JP and Sonoshee and gasp at each new (increasingly gigantic and insane) threat that stands between them and the finish line. We're aware of where they are, where they stand in the race. We're aware of how their sweet, understated romance has developed over the course of the film, and we're rooting for them to get together. We're even fully understanding all the military chaos that's happening in the background. Most importantly, we care.
That's a very important characteristic for a film like Redline to have, because otherwise, it would be incredibly easy to dismiss this film as just flashy animation, an artist at the peak of his considerable powers showing off with little regard for story or character. In fact, on first viewing, it's hard not to be so struck by the power of the film's aesthetic that you simply might not even notice the story. Redline is unmistakably the work of an animation genius, and that thumbprint is practically bursting from every frame. As the film breathlessly moves along, every new visual element that gets presented– and there's something new to gawk at every few minutes, seemingly – is the coolest damn thing you've ever seen, for at least the next couple minutes. By the time you're watching a massive radioactive beast-weapon thrashing about on the barren hellscape of Roboworld, your eyeballs might be tired, but you won't be able to look away. Even the finish line itself is the coolest-looking finish line in the history of racing movies. There's nary a moment where the animation's intense fluidity and construction stumble – it's a high water mark for quality, and understandably the most highly touted of all of Redline's many virtues.
The real aesthetic magic that's happening in this film (aside from the wildly creative character design and, well, virtually everything else) is all in the mechanical animation. For years now, ever since the rise of affordable CG, everything that even resembles a machine – from a simple tool to a car or a tank – in anime films, TV, OVAs, you name it, has been rendered in low-poly CG, wrapped in flat textures and sent trundling awkwardly around two dimensional backgrounds and characters. In Redline, Koike made the choice to hand-draw every single frame of the film- there is no CG used in any of the vehicle artwork or any of the film's many mechanized monstrosities. This is 100 percent pure animation, drawn by overwhelmingly talented artisans, and the result – the impact of that decision – makes Redline quite frankly look like one of the most lavish and expensive animated movies ever made. There are shots in here where the very thought of the technical prowess required to pull off what's happening on screen - by hand, without computer assistance, no less - is breathtaking. No wonder it took seven years to finish.
Redline's fairly ridiculous level of quality doesn't end there – a film like this would be only half complete without a decent soundtrack, and the pounding, relentless electronic tracks that fill in the spaces between exaggerated engine roars do the job perfectly. In the film's rare quiet moments, the soundtrack mutes itself, becoming understated, sometimes vanishing altogether when there isn't action to punctuate. It's a very effective score, one that merits listening to on its own, outside the context of the film.
Doubtlessly, the best way to watch this jewel is on bluray, where the artistry can really pop. Manga's release is about the best anyone could ask for in an environment where special features on anime releases are few and far between. In addition to the main feature presented in crystal clear HD, we get a couple trailers and, most importantly, the hour-long making-of documentary “Perfect Guide to Redline”, presented in 1080p with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the creative staff and Japanese voice cast. It's more than we usually get, and some sort of deluxe packaging with an art book or something would've been nice, but we can't have everything.
The English dub – presented here in both a 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby track – is, unfortunately, not much to write home about. The performances are all competent, to be sure, but they don't quite match the characters as well as the Japanese voices do. The talented Patrick Seitz, as JP, seems to be over-inflecting his line readings in English to the point where he sounds like he's trying too hard to come across as a badass greaser, in contrast to the effortless, almost apathetic cool that Takuya Kimura brings to the role. It isn't a bad performance by any stretch, it just feels a little too on-the-nose. Michelle Ruff does what she can with Sonoshee, a character who spends most of the film a little walled-off and doesn't have any big emotional moments until the last third or so, but it's a convincing and appropriate voice for the role. Frisbee, JP's conflicted alien mechanic, has a gruff gangster voice in Japanese, but in English, he's got this breathy, pompous thing going on. Again, the performance – by Liam O'Brien – is fine; it just doesn't quite seem to fit the character. It's the little choices like that that sometimes derail the dub and make it a less satisfying experience, even if you do get to watch the film without subtitles covering up all that gorgeous art.
The other issue, is, of course, the dub's fidelity to the original script, which Bang Zoom apparently didn't take too seriously. In English, everyone in Redline swears a whole lot more, and there's a bunch of strangely childish name-calling going on ( JP gets called a “stupid rockabilly poseur” at one point in English ). While the subtitle script isn't exactly sparkling (this is a new translation, different from the one available on the Japanese BD), it's still a little better and less unnecessarily salty than the English track. It's not as if swearing isn't a good fit for the bleeding-edge world of Redline, it's that the English dub doesn't do a very good job cramming it in there. Neither the English track nor the subtitles are perfect, though; at one point, there's a melee between military forces and the Redline racers “Super Boins”, a pair of busty pop stars whose racecar transforms into an equally voluptuous killing machine. In English, the Roboworld general says “I'm going to have your ass if you don't stop messing around with those cosplay rejects from a porno!” which sounds like it was written by an 8th grader who's trying to make fun of the movie and failing. Glancing down to the subtitles gets you “Quit messing around with those pervs and tits!”, which doesn't really even make sense. You win some, you lose some. The dub doesn't ruin or even really depreciate the movie very much – it's there if you want it, and you'll have a great time even if the voices sometimes don't seem quite right.
Redline is a very special thing – for longtime anime fans, it's both futuristic and retro, a bath in our rose-colored memories of “what anime used to be” and a love letter to the promise of “what anime could be”. People who grew up with well-worn VHS tapes of Akira and Vampire Hunter D will instantly recognize Redline as having that particular quality that made anime feel so vital, even dangerous. The truth is, of course, that anime never really was “like” Redline – this is a new creation, something that doubtlessly draws from the past but reimagines and refines all of its influences so spectacularly that stone-cold newcomers to this particular art form could sit down and have their mind blown, even without wistful memories of the first time they saw Ninja Scroll dancing through their head. Most importantly, Redline is a triumphant achievement in entertainment, something that could be appreciated and enjoyed by nearly any crowd of fun-loving adults. It's an instant classic.