“Just close your eyes and take the money.”
Pretty leftfield choice, I’ll admit. I’ve been busy the past few weeks doing stuff for The Peoples’ Movies and I was tasked with reviewing the Blu-ray release of the 1975 cult film Rollerball. It’s not perfect, but it has some compelling ideas in it. After watching it, I had an urge to watch the notoriously shit remake. Apparently my brain thinks I haven’t seen enough absolute scrotewash in my time.
Chris Klein plays Jonathan Cross, a rookie player who has made a name for himself playing Rollerball, a dangerous sport that involves rollerblades, a big metallic ball and motorbikes. He soon learns that promoter Alexi Petrovich (Jean Reno) has a vested interest in keeping ratings high and the way to do that is to make sure the game is as brutal as possible, even going as far as to engineer certain “accidents” to keep the audience share up. Then some shit happens. Whatever, I’m losing valuable whinging space.
If you are blessed enough to have not seen the film, you should know that this is a remake in the loosest possible terms. They keep the sport, the first name of the lead character and a smidge of corporate behind the scenes tinkering. It’s ludicrous. Why fucking bother remaking something if you’re not going to actually do anything with the property? The only members of the cast that walk away relatively unscathed are LL Cool J, Rebecca Romijn and Paul Heyman. They’re all hampered by godawful writing, but with each of them I can sense a performance in there struggling to get out. I only included Paul Heyman in that list because I’m a massive fan of his WWE work and the film plays to his strengths i.e. giving him time on the mic. No idea why they have Chris Klein in this film. I get that they’re going for a fresh-faced Jonathan, rather than the jaded James Caan version, but goddamn. It’s a Keanu-esque performance without any of the presence or charm. Narratively, it makes no sense to have a youngster who has only been playing the sport for 4 months be the centre of a story about the slow corruption of the sport. But hey, nothing in this film makes a lick of sense. You never quite know what you’re going to get with Jean Reno. Rollerball Reno is awful. He’s hammy, but not in a fun way. All his personality quirks seem to be sourced from some kind of bad guy bargain bin.
All these years later, John McTiernan’s fall from quality still baffles me. Dude directed Die Hard and Predator. He practically wrote the blueprint for action movies for the next 3 decades (and counting). I believe I’ve talked about it before, but one of the subtler reasons why Die Hard works so well is the geography of it all. You get to know the layout of Nakatomi Plaza. Careful attention is paid to expressing where McClane is and where Hans and his boys are. Rollerball fucks all of that out of a window. You’d think that they would have done a decent job on one of the only things they kept from the original. Nope. The action’s a joke. I had no idea what was going on during the actual games. Part of it is a complete overuse of shakycam and part of it is just a complete misunderstanding of what makes a scene coherent. It’d be tempting to blame the editors, but I get the feeling McTiernan just didn’t give them enough to work with. I just don’t get how you go from genius level filmmaking to barely keeping the camera in focus. The violence is surprisingly tame. One of the points of Rollerball as a thing is the fact that it’s a bloodsport. It’s harkening back to gladiatorial combat. It shows how desensitised the audience has become to brutality. The film’s a 15, but the action is 12A at the very most. What pushes the film over the ratings edge is a strange preoccupation with female nudity. You can usually have bloody beatdowns, but a bit of nip action is too far. Here it’s the opposite. This is like a nega-film.
I don’t often say this, but Rollerball as a property is worthy of a remake. As I said in my review of the original, the Caan film has been influential and as such has been imitated and bettered by things since. There are some really relevant and intriguing ideas there that could be teased out with the right touch. Some of the best science-fiction films ever have been made in the past 20 years. It’s ripe for someone to come along and just build on the foundations laid back in ’75. However, this Rollerball has no interest in any of that shit. It doesn’t even veer into “so bad it’s good” territory. It’s criminally boring. The point in the film where I was sure that nobody actually cared was an extended chase sequence set at night and filmed in night vision. You can’t tell what the hell is happening and the only reason it seems to be in the film is to hide some shockingly bad CGI. Also, I’m pretty sure the sound guys knew what was up. There’s an unexplained, straight-up cartoon “TWANG!” sound effect when a fence gets broken that was so funny and out of place, I choked on my drink whilst watching.
Rollerball is kind of fascinating. If you have a high threshold for boredom and you want to see what it looks like when nobody involved gives a flying fuck, check it out. If not, I apologise for doing my bit to either inform or remind you that the film exists. Let the sands of time take care of this one.