‘X’ marks the spot for IMAX sports thrills: “ESPN’s Ultimate X”

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
May 10, 2002

3 stars

ESPN Ultimate XThere are many dangerous sports. Athletes have been paralyzed in gymnastics and football. And the dangers of boxing don’t need to be explained.

But there’s nothing like the litany of thrilling events at an X Games competition to make you wonder, “Why would anyone do that?”

The latest IMAX film, “ESPN’s Ultimate X,” attempts to answer that question by asking the athletes. Their nonchalant replies are rad (“I wouldn’t do it if I can’t get destroyed”), but sports commentator Jason Ellis sums it up best: “They’re a little messed up in their heads.”

The breathtaking film introduces viewers to a dozen of the top competitors in nontraditional “action sports,” such as skateboarding, BMX biking, Moto X and street luge, filmed at the 2001 Summer X Games in Philadelphia. If there’s an honors student among them, the filmmakers don’t show it. One competitor admits, “The only degree I have is in anger management.”

What we do see are kids as young as 17 on up to young adults in their early 30s who, as one comments, “live to ride, ride to live.”

This is not a crew that finds excitement on a roller-coaster ride. Part acrobat, aerialist and Evel Knievel, these are daredevils who think nothing of zooming 80 miles per hour in a friendly competition of street luge. Or about executing one-armed handstands while their motorbikes propel through the air at break-neck speeds. Sometimes, when their timing is amiss, their hands fail to hang onto their motorbikes, and it’s just a matter of time before they crash to the ground, some in pain, others walking away stoked.

Except for helmets, there is no common uniform for these competitors. Most wear knee guards and other protective gear for their joints, but some eschew them to experience greater freedom. Most wear pants so baggy that the mere fact they stay up defies the miracle of gravity.

As for the fans, they enjoy the thrill factor.

“I’ve come down to see the guys who broke every one of their bones,” says one fan.

“It’s the thrill of people getting hit,” says a 20ish guy, who also admits he’s there to check out all the “younger girls.” He seemingly is oblivious to the feelings of his date, who doesn’t appear to be older than 17.

Beautifully shot and edited in brisk MTV style, this film gives moviegoers a bird’s-eye view of extreme sports.

Though it shows a little X Games history (ever hear of shovel racing? That’s what we thought), the film concentrates on the stars of today: Bucky Lasek, Travis Pastrana and, the sport’s first breakout star, 33-year-old skateboarder Tony Hawk.

Best known for his execution of the 900 (a mid-air 360-degree somersault done 2-1/2 times), Hawk has become a franchise, with a slew of video games, books and commercials under his slim belt.

How many other competitors grow up to be as well-rounded as Hawk is yet to be determined.

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