Film / Reviews

‘Over Drive’: An unrealistic racing flick puts the action into top gear

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Car movies from Japan are few and far between, which is strange given the huge automotive industry and millions of car lovers here. Now industry leader Toyota has joined forces with Toho, Japan’s biggest film distributor and exhibitor, to fill that gap with “Over Drive,” a full-throttled cinematic ode to speed set in the world of rally racing.

Based on Sayaka Kuwamura’s original script, “Over Drive” is over-the-top in everything from its roaring action to its ripe theatrics. Both are trademarks of director Eiichiro Hasumi, whose credits include the smash-hit “Umizaru” films about the heroic adventures and weepy tribulations of Japan Coast Guard divers.

His heroes are Atsuhiro Hiyama (Masahiro Higashide) and his younger brother, Naozumi (Mackenyu Arata) — the former the chief mechanic and the latter the ace driver for Spica Racing Factory, a top team in the fictional Seiko Cup Rally Series for younger drivers. The winner of this Japan/Asia race series will advance to the World Rally Championship, a real-life circuit.

Over Drive
Rating
Run Time 104 mins.
Language JAPANESE

The hot-blooded Naozumi has a bitter rival in Akira Shinkai (Takumi Kitamura), the cool-headed driver for the Sigma team, but the drama centers on Naozumi’s fractious relationship with Atsuhiro. Straight-arrow, super-dedicated Atsuhiro works tirelessly with his team to give Naozumi an edge, while fiercely resenting his brother’s egotism and arrogance. One comparison is the smirking young Tom Cruise as a NASCAR driver in “Days of Thunder,” but Arata’s Naozumi outdoes Cruise in sheer odiousness, treating pro mechanics like lowly hired help.

Even worse is in store for Hikaru Endo (Aoi Morikawa), a wide-eyed young agent for a sports management company newly assigned to Naozumi. Ignorant of rally racing and its macho ethic, she is slighted, ignored and physically batted about, like a small dog that has unwisely ventured into a rugby scrum.

Just as I was mentally hoping for Naozumi, her chief tormentor, to take a long drive off a high cliff, the story shifts gears and we see that the brotherly rift has its roots in a long-ago love triangle that ended tragically. But Atsuhiro and Naozumi were also close as kids, exemplified by their thrilling mountain bike races down a steep seaside hill.

These flashbacks are framed as soft-focus nostalgia, while the brothers’ present-day clashes are amplified to the max. The usually excellent Higashide plays Atsuhiro as a jut-jawed exemplar, rattling off racing jargon with steely authority. As Naozumi, Arata, the U.S.-raised son of action legend Sonny Chiba, is admirably ripped, as shirtless scenes reveal, but overdoes the obnoxiousness (though perhaps, as in the case of the young Cruise, it comes naturally).

The racing scenes, which use actual rally cars and drivers, are the film’s visual highlight and, no doubt for many fans of the sport, its entire raison d’etre. The cars zoom, skid, fly and crash with adrenaline-pumping impact. Admittedly, they race against the clock instead of each other, but, if you can imagine yourself behind the wheel, the risks the drivers take are hair-raising.

Since “Over Drive” is aimed at the widest possible audience, presumably impressionable kids included, the inevitable cost of all that risk-taking is underplayed. Even a scene set in a medical tent is bloodless — and the action begins to feel game-like as a consequence.

But to generations raised on “Mario Kart” instead of Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans,” will it really matter?