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Film Review: Rollerball (2002)

SYNOPSIS:
“Jonathan Cross, a lover of extreme sports, is recruited by Alexi Petrovich to star in his sportive invention, Rollerball. Jonathan accepts and learns the ropes of Rollerball: The players are on Rollerblades, trying to bring a heavy metal ball into a high goal. Also, there are motorcyclists around to bring momentum to the players. Oh yes, and there are no rules in the game. During his skyrocketing career, Jonathan has to experience what Alexi has found out – Blood brings more viewing pleasure to the audience. So, Alexi starts to bribe members of the different teams to cause more trouble than necessary on the field, and the viewers love it. Only a little later, Johnathan’s life is already in extreme danger as well as those of his friends and teammates. In a final game, Jonathan and his team have to fight for mere survival against their real opponent – their boss Alexi Petrovich.” (courtesy IMDB)

REVIEW:
In 1975 violence made its presence felt in science fiction cinema, most notably in Norman Jewison‘s slick but empty Rollerball (1975) based on a short story by William Harrison. As usual, when a short story idea is stretched to fill over two hours of screen time, the result is a lot of padding and fake profundity. Rollerball is the name of a game played in the future in which groups of men on roller-skates attempt to beat each other’s brains out with metal-studded gloves. The corporations that rule this future world have devised the game as a means of keeping the population under control, the idea being that if people are able to watch men on skates beating each other up, they won’t want to indulge in any awkward political activity. The scheme goes wrong when one of the rollerball champions, Jonathan E. (James Caan), is so successful at the game that he becomes a cult figure throughout the world. Fearful of this dangerous display of individuality, the corporations attempt to eliminate him by making the game increasingly dangerous – they abolish the rules. Jonathan E. survives, however, and the film ends with him alone and triumphant on a body-littered track while the corporations, represented by John Houseman, gnash their teeth in frustration as the crowds roar Jonathan’s name.

The rollerball sequences are well-staged and exciting but off the track the film is slow and boring, consisting mainly of watching James Caan brood about what it all means. As science fiction the film is unsatisfactory because we are told very little about this future world of 2018, apart from the fact that corporations have abolished all individual nations and that war, poverty and disease no longer exist. As a result the events in the film are left suspended in a cultural and social limbo, yet according to director Jewison his intention was to issue a warning about the growing violence in popular sports and how this caters to the baser instincts. His warning would have had more relevance if he had set the film nearer contemporary times.

Come the eighties and director John McTiernan was declared the new hope for action pictures. After an interesting debut with the unsettling sleeper Nomads (1986), he hit gold with the double-whammy thrill rides of Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988), ranking alongside The Terminator (1984) as the most seminal action pictures of the eighties. How times have changed. After the rousing thrills of The Hunt For Red October (1990) and the too-clever-for-its-own-good Last Action Hero (1993), it’s been a long, slippery downhill journey for Mr. McTiernan. Destination: Shitsville. Medicine Man (1992), The Thirteenth Warrior (1999), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), culminating in Rollerball (2002), his sorry remake of the seventies original.

Chris Klein plays thrill-seeker Jonathan Cross, plucked literally off the streets of San Francisco by his mate Marcus (LL Cool J), Jonathan is soon ranked amongst the top players of The Horsemen, a rollerball team owned by a crazy entrepreneur Petrovich (Jean Reno). As far as uniforms go, the orange T-shirts with the futuristic computer font numbers as seen in the 1975 version have now been replaced by tight leather outfits and jazzy helmets. Curiously, most of the players also sport Clockwork Orange-style eyeliner, presumably to cut down glare but also give them a slightly more menacing quality. Sorry, did I say quality? Not in this film, mate! Perhaps noisy, moronic, wretched or stupid would be more accurate? On the plus side, the film is mercifully short, edited together like one of those high-speed montages that are a dime-a-dozen on the weekend sports shows.

Those looking for something easy to watch after a tough day at work might consider Rollerball as potentially enjoyable trash, but you’ll most likely be sorry. Why? Well, apart from some excitingly staged action on its much larger arena, the original was a dull, pretentious (though sometimes amusingly dated) mess, deservedly parodied by Roger Corman’s low-budget rip-off Death Race 2000 (1975). Chris Klein may be enjoyably goofy as the sweet-natured star of American Pie (1999), but as the superstar rollerbrawler he barely registers. Surrounded by similarly experienced ‘talent’ like Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and LL Cool J, Klein is a good-looking but charisma-free black hole. Even Jean Reno, normally an immediately likable actor, is just plain annoying here. Saddled with a ridiculous Russian-French (Frussian?) accent, he makes John Houseman’s relentless hamming from the original seem more restrained than William Hurt in a coma. Despite a vicious scar down her face, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is quite sexy, and…er, well, she has lovely teeth. And LL is just LL, for better or worse, but he should seriously look at getting a new agent after this, Deep Blue Sea (1999) and SWAT (2003).

While it’s fair to say the 1975 version was never a great film, it’s now beginning to look like a masterpiece. And it’s with that thought in mind I’ll now bid you goodnight and farewell until we again to grope blindly around the bear-trap known as Hollywood for next week’s star-spangled celluloid stinker for…Horror News. Toodles!

Rollerball (2002)

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