So incessant is this large-format documentary’s barrage of hard-driving rock ballads (there are 21 credited songs), and its jittery, short-tempered aesthetics so indebted to the musicvideo school, that “ESPN’s Ultimate X,” about the world of extreme-sports competitors and competitions, could just as well be “MTV’s Ultimate X.” Pic is a furious blur of energy, full of “how’d they do that” camera trickery that simulates, at various points, the p.o.v. of a street luger and a stunt motorbike rider. But like Imax’s recent “Space Station,” “Ultimate X” is most impressive in an objective sense, as a technical exercise — its staccato technique preventing greater involvement. (Is it any surprise to find, among those thanked in pic’s end credits, none other than Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay?) “Ultimate X” is notable as an example of Hollywood’s growing interest in the Imax format as an avenue for mainstream entertainment, and should perform well over the traditionally long run given to large-format films. But there may be a cut-off age for this pic: It’s not really for anyone old enough to find the idea of breaking every bone in your body something other than “cool.”
Short even by Imax standards, 39-minute pic takes place primarily during the 2001 Summer X Games in Philadelphia. There’s a standard assortment of interviews with fans and competitors alike, interspersed with footage from X Games competition shot from dizzying vantage points with astute frame-rate manipulations that emphasize the athletes’ audacious acrobatics.
Watching “Ultimate X” document the spinning, somersaulting performances of such name-brand “extreme” athletes as skateboarder Tony Hawk and BMX rider Ryan Nyquist can indeed be exhilarating. And there is a certain mordant humor to writer-director Bruce Hendricks’ assembly of the footage, particularly the way he delights in showing montages of stunts gone awry in horrible, bone-crunching ways. It wouldn’t be nearly as funny if the athletes themselves weren’t so ra-ra about everything, but they are; fellow BMX-er Cory Nastazio laughs off the fact that he’s been in a coma and flatlined.
There are other fleeting pleasures in the film, like the brief overview of early X Games competitions, with footage of such later-abandoned sports as shovel racing and kayak-bungee-jumping. But ultimately “Ultimate X” is out to make such peril seem sexy rather than harrowing or ridiculous. For all intents and purposes, pic is a longform commercial, designed to make viewers hot to buy a skateboard, dirt bike or — at the very least — one of the many albums featured on the soundtrack. And while the movie provides plenty of visceral thrills, it nevertheless resembles something that might be shown as an attraction at an amusement park rather than a proper night at the movies.
That’s because, for all his visual flair, Hendricks never goes deeper inside X Games culture. The film is too insular and self-contained, as though those who are not already members of the party are not invited to attend. You never really get a sense of what drives these athletes to do what they do, and so the great opportunity of the film is missed.
Those seeking a truly rewarding movie about the social and cultural impact of alternative sports would be better advised to continue further down the alphabet — and see Stacy Peralta’s “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”