Red Line 7000 runs out of gas before it starts.
The story is soap—love and death among the beautiful race car drivers. The cast, mostly comprising then-unknowns, is stiff. The interactions between the actors lack wit, warmth, personality—a far cry from the barbed banter we expect from a Howard Hawks picture. James Caan, in particular, is after a James Dean kind of hot-then-cool-headed intensity, but he’s just a pretty face here. Only Norman Alden as a manager/mentor (i.e., grown-up) comes off as a person of interest—as being in his own skin. Generally, then, the story and the players are not invested. They can’t shake the odd chill that permeates much of the stillborn drek from 50s and 60s Hollywood.
Hawks usually has a flair for showing us manly men and women at work and play. It helps that he usually has movie stars at his employ. It helps that he loves to make (relatively) propulsive comedies and actioners, and refrains from getting flashy. Well, Red Line 7000 has a future movie star, but its feel for the arena in which these kids chase their thrills is OFF. Outside of a chance moment or two, you never get the sense that they truly enjoy what they’re doing.1 When they dance at the local hop (juke-joint, whatever), the music almost spoofs itself—it’s third-rate pop pap—and they are shot somewhat antiseptically, so they are as plastic and manufactured-looking as the tacky, hot-lit interiors on which they move.2 And the real racing footage, while it can’t offer vehicular shots and editing on the order of a Bullitt (1968) or French Connection (1971) (or Ben-Hur!), embarrasses the hell out of the fake bleacher shots. Plus, the racing footage is skimpy. Hawks entrusts the bulk of the action to the commentator in his booth and the reaction of the spectators. The effect is canned. There’s no real inside view of the sport as it’s played, and Hawks is not one to thrust the psychology of his characters through dialogue alone—in a Hawks film, the “sport” shown (incidental to the real story though it may be) will usually tell much. Here the speed breed bores, at work and at play.
So what does Red Line 7000 say, really say? It says Howard Hawks (69 years old when he made this, his third to last feature) can’t relate to the whippersnappers it’s about, and he doesn’t want to either. He should have put more of himself in the material. Had he done so, the movie might have been something.
1 Perhaps this amounts to a paradox, but I do not think Hawks pulls a Douglas Sirk (so do not get Frenchy-poo on me). Nothing in the mise-en-scene or use of color suggests he is painting the screen with the inner turmoil of his characters. Nothing in the story lets on that the characters are metaphorical stand-ins for, or responses to, the so-called rot that American culture and/or pop effluvia may have meant to him in 1965. He is just not that dialed into this group of daredevils. That’s all.
2 Why observe their dancing for so long, with such little feeling or tether to the story? Am I too used to the innovations Richard Lester brought us? Since kids (to my eyes) did dance funny back then and the fashion and design sense was (in some cases) awfully tacky, I could be unfairly faulting Hawks for not letting his hair down. But he was old and bald, and while that sounds snotty, I think the point supports my larger point, which is: Dude was out of touch.