There's something agreeably psychotic about Redline, the new racing-action film from Hong Kong director Andy Cheng; Cheng's best known as a stunt director, and Redline has stunts and driving aplenty. It may take place in a universe where male leads dress suspiciously like Rick Astley and the majority of women on-screen are sub-sentient arm candy; it may feel like a bizarre time capsule gift from the 1980's; it may feature some truly unhinged acting by people who should know better; it may feel like a weird synthesis of Hong Kong action, Michael Bay-style gloss, Burt Renolds driving epics and Elvis movies, but it has some great driving and a few mild pleasures. Redline didn't screen for critics, so there I was, sitting in a 2:45 Friday matinee, and when Ernie Reyes, Jr. showed up to kick some ass I smiled and said, "Well, alright." If you sit and think about how bad Redline is, you'd go mad; just enjoy how it is bad, and the cars and the fights and the sights all heaped around that badness, and you may have a good time.
Redline is not only financed by real-estate investor Daniel Sadek, it features vehicles primarily from his own personal collection of high-end performance cars. Actually, not only does the film feature Sadek's cars, he also wrote the lyrics to many of the film's original songs. This kind of thinking may seem like madness -- actually, a brief listen to the film's power ballad, "Moving Violations," pretty much confirms it's madness -- but that kind of goofy goony megalomania has been largely squeezed out of Hollywood these days, where multinational corporations have third-quarter line items about projected writedowns due to the failure of their comic-book franchise's sequel. Redline may be junk, but at least it's junk made by human beings.
Redline takes place in the shadowy world of underground racing, or the version of that world you might imagine if your only visions of it had come from other movies and a few videogames. A group of rich jerks -- including record producer Eddie Griffin, puffy crimelord Angus Macfayden and movie producer Tim Matheson -- have been setting up impromptu multi-million bets on short-run races: Can your guy get from L.A. to me in Vegas in 1 h 45? Can your driver beat my driver on a closed-track? The races are illegal, and dangerous, and yadda yadda yadda.
One of the drivers, Jason (Jesse Johnson) is the nephew to Macfayden's gangster-prophet character; Macfayden owes the wrong people too much money, and looks like Christopher Hitchens after a long holiday weekend. Jason is dressed exactly like one of the Flock of Seagulls, and has a brother, Carlo (Nathan Phillips) just back from Iraq. Carlo finds him caught up in intrigue surrounding Nat (Nadia Bjorlin), who tunes cars for race fans like Infamous, the rap mogul played by Griffin. Infamous needs Nat to drive, but she doesn't race -- not since the crash that killed her daddy. These days, Nat runs a small business, and fronts an amazingly bad band.
The fact that we not only get to hear about this aspect of Nat's life but witness it -- in all of its sub-Black Eyed Peas glory -- is just another thing to like about Redline; it feels like it's following some entirely different script for success. Redline is backed by Chicago Releasing -- an outfit with only one other film to it's name, and the whole enterprise reeks of low-budget enthusiasm and delusions of grandeur. Phillips is a solid -- by which I mean stiff -- presence on screen, and his fight scenes look like he's administering a series of rapid chiropractic procedures without consent -- a lot of Jason Bourne-style elbows and neck-strikes. Bjorlin gets to drive fast, look sassy and deliver incredibly clunky exposition dialogue.
If there's one thing worth watching on an acting level in Redline, it's either Griffin's motor-mouthed producer -- spitting out slang and crazy-talk at double-time -- or Macfayden's diabolically unhinged father-figure gangster. A discussion of kidnapping turns into a meditation on the ethics of vegetarianism, culminating in an unveiled threat -- Macfayden seems to be getting an entirely different movie beamed into his brain, and he looks like he's bursting with it. The driving stunts are all impressive -- it looks like there's a minimum of digital trickery in the film, although who can tell these days? -- and the fights are all within the quality spectrum between "adequate" to "Roadhouse-level." Late in the film, when Ernie Reyes, Jr. (The Rundown, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II) gets a few brief moments of action-screen time, any B-level action fan will find himself making a tiny, but sincere, air-punch for his presence.
Redline's themes could be summed up in Tarzan-speak: Cars fast, girls pretty, family important, dreams matter, gangsters bad. And Redline is not a good film -- but after a season of movies that have been bombastically bad (300), cryptically bad (Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters) and blandly bad (Because I Said So), it's nice to see a bad movie that looks like the product of a few people's dream and not like the end result of marketing meetings, quadrant-tracking and profit projections based on previous film performance in home video. If you're looking for a matinee that feels like a 14-year-old's daydream and goes by in an eye blink, Redline will pass time in the passing lane.