Now showing: Rollerball

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

You know you're in trouble when you started seeing previews and ads for a movie nearly two years before it actually hits the theaters, unless, that is, the movie in question has George Lucas stamped on it. I looked and looked and, unfortunately, Rollerball has no such stamp.

I just have to say right up front, this movie is bad. And I don't mean bad as in good, I mean bad as in "how does a movie this incomprehensible even get past the first pitch meeting?" Chris Klein, inheritor of all the blankness Keanu Reeves has to offer, plays Jonathon (or "Jon-A-Ton" as the crowds of Central Asian Igors chant incessantly) Cross, a star of one of the most popular new sports in all of the third world, Rollerball. Rollerball, as anyone who has seen the 1970's original knows, involves rollerskates, motorcycles, and a big metal ball that is used to score. The game makes virtually no sense, but in the original, a futuristic indictment of the growing commercialism of sports, the rules weren't the point. The rules are pointless in this new version, too, but it has no such societal subtext to prop it up. What it does have are tons of poorly choreographed action pieces played out on the Rollerball track, and just as many poorly constructed characters to act them out.

Cross apparently had resisted being recruited by the folks over at Rollerball for sometime. He spends the first part of the movie talking about his impending stardom in the NHL, although I don't get why any team would want him. His idea of fun is playing roller-Luge on the city streets of San Francisco, one of the movies many idiotic, though its only really thrilling sequences. When he finally takes the job and relocates to Cental Asia, he discovers that the wealth is definitely flowing for those with powerful friends. Unfortunately, there is also lots of poverty and corruption (Hey! You're in the Third World!) and soon his conscience is getting to him. Then, all of a sudden he's in love with Rebecca Romijn Stamos and they're trying to smuggle him out of the country. I was never sure exactly what the issue was, but it involved a car/plane/motorcycle chase, so I'm sure it must have been important. As a topper, the entire twenty minute scene I just mentioned was filmed entirely with the grainy-green night vision cam, though no one that I could see was actually wearing night vision goggles. Oh well, you can't dwell on every ridiculous misstep of an all-out ridiculous movie. By the time we got to the white-knuckle finale, I was laughing up a storm. It was my only defense.

Actually, I was a little surprised that this movie is as bad as it is. Considering the talent involved; mid-level, admittedly, but strong mid-level, you'd think they could've come up with something remotely watchable. Jean Reno was great in The Professional, but is terrible here as a Russian baddie. He plays this heavy so heavily that he should have had a top hat and a handlebar mustache to twirl. Likewise, L.L. Cool J and Rebecca Romijn Stamos usually put forth solid performances, but here they just stumble through. The biggest disappointment is in John McTiernan, however. That the man who gave us Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October should be responsible for this is a travesty. I can only assume that it's not entirely his fault.

Rollerball has the classic look of a film that has been attacked by it's studio. So many scenes come together jarringly, that it seems impossible that the final product could have come from a director even remotely talented. Further evidence of studio tampering is in its frequently delayed release date. Hollywood execs often get nervous at the final cut of a film, and try to rework it to match what they were expecting. All the Pretty Horses is one example of this. Billy Bob Thornton's original vision was nearly four hours long, and the studio flipped out. When they finished, what was left was a one hour and forty five minute shell - still a very good movie, but Thornton all but disowned it. I don't actually know if this is the case with Rollerball, but it wouldn't surprise me.

There is a shell of social commentary left in this train wreck of a movie. Something to do with oppressed mine workers in the now-democratic Russian cast-offs. The Rollerballers also seem to be oppressed, although their extravagant salaries and opulent lifestyles seem to contradict that. True, they are not free to quit, but does anyone really feel sorry for them? They get to roll around a big, curvy track and throw metal balls at each other. What could be better than that? There is also a red flag thrown up about violence in sports, but even that seems behind the times. It's like we've already past this stage in our evolution. American Gladiators failed. It was popular for a while, but then people tuned out. Rollerball would have been much more relavant had it been released in 1987 rather than 2002. Come to think of it, I think that's when I first started seeing ads for it. Grade: D-

Rollerball is rated PG-13 for brief nudity, violence and language.

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