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Rollerball
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   John McTiernan (director)
Genre:   Sci-Fi / Action
Released:   February 8, 2002
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   4/10 (What Is This?)

You know those movies that are based around a craze? The ones where there is a plot, but it's mostly just something to fill the spaces in between the real action: skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, paintball, or break-dancing. Well, here you've got Rollerball, a movie that's pretending to be near-future science fiction and social commentary, but is really just an ultraviolent version of Gleaming the Cube.

I have to admit that I harbored at least a vague shred of hope that Rollerball would be good. The original Rollerball (1975) was notable, both for its violence and its ideas, even if the movie did drag quite a bit. In the near future, a new sport has arisen, and the more edgy and dangerous it gets, the more the audience loves it.
I'm a sucker for those futuristic bloodsport movies. The Running Man and Death Race 2000. Pop those in the VCR, and I'm hooked. And there were some good people involved in this remake. John McTiernan (director), Eric Serra (original music), Jean Reno, and LL Cool J, who was both funny and believable in Deep Blue Sea. John McTiernan has directed Die Hard and Predator; and The 13th Warrior was, I think, one of the most imaginative and underrated movies of 1999. Rollerball, though, looks like it might replace Last Action Hero as McTiernan's critical and artistic lowpoint.

The hard-driving metal mayhem music is not nearly as interesting as the moody atmospheric stuff Eric Serra did for Goldeneye, or the versatile, alien soundscapes of The Fifth Element. Jean Reno (The Professional and Mission: Impossible), as Rollerball's easy-to-spot villain, occasionally manages some genuine menace, but most of it is smothered by his silly Russian-meathead accent. And though I like LL Cool J in this movie, the interesting thing about his role in Deep Blue Sea was that he left behind the rapper swagger to portray a god-fearing average-Joe galley cook. Rollerball puts him squarely back on swagger territory.

There's a fine line between a good dumb movie (Bloodsport, Maximum Overdrive, The Running Man, Mortal Kombat) and just plain dumb. Rollerball steps over that line and plunges headlong into the bad movie abyss.

The plot points come in rapid, throwaway succession. Boom, and on to the next. The opening scene is there to hook the extreme sports crowd, and show us that Jonathon Cross (Chris Klein, vying with Planet of the Apes' Mark Wahlberg for "Most boring hero") is a living-on-the-edge type of guy. The next scene, where Cross turns down a chance to play Rollerball is there to show us that he has dreams and scruples. Bam! The next scene: cops are at his house, so he has no choice but to… run off and join the team. The next scene shows us that Cross has become a star. The next scene shows us that the Rollerballers bring in the big money. The next scene sets up the conflict. The next scene (SPOILERS AHEAD, IF YOU CARE) is there to show that Aurora (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) is hot, and that she loves Jonathon Cross. On to the next plot point, blah, blah, blah, After a while, we get an attempt by the main characters to escape, but we all know that the writer's won't let that happen, because the climax of the movie has to be set in the arena, right? I mean, how many baseball, football, or boxing movies do you know whose climaxes don't center around the dramatic "for the championship" game?

The thing is, we know that the plot is just an excuse to film bone-crunching, brutal Rollerball action, and that the filmmakers don't give a toss about the plot or the characters. Which makes the half-assed attempts at social commentary and character motivation particularly pitiful. The most promising are the interactions between members of Cross's Rollerball team. But no really memorable characters emerge. Aurora is fun to watch (who says that facial scars and bright red gladiator helmets can't be sexy?), but aside from her looks, there's not much to her, or to anyone in the whole movie for that matter.

Rollerball is also another casualty of the recent crackdown on R-rated movies aimed at teens. It's clear that the PG-13 movie was originally made to get an R-rating. There's a handful of strategic redubs - lines like "screwing with us" and "you're not fooling with me, are you?" were, once upon a time, a little more vulgar. Only once do we get the full-on F-word (perhaps because it's such an important emotional moment for the character). What's the rule? One or two "f#@&"s gets you the patented Adventures in Babysitting PG-13, but any more than that, you get an R. I'd also wager that there was some gushing blood, not to mention some parts of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' anatomy, that ended up the cutting-room floor.

It's a pretty bad sign when a studio films an R-rated movie, and then, afterwards, decides that the small number of 13-to-17-year-olds who might get turned away at the ticket counter… are a crucial part of their target audience. And what 13-year-old wouldn't want to go to see Rollerball? It's chock-full of everything that a (stereotypical) 13-year-old boy has plastered up on his wall: wrestling, shiny cars, extreme sports, and supermodels. And if that's not enough, we'll throw in appearances by Pink and Slipknot.

So, what to make of a movie that is both lurid and tasteful? I don't know about you, but when I go to a bloodsport movie, I want to see the torn flesh and the protruding bone fragments.

Rollerball is at its best in its odd comic moments, most of which take potshots at sports and entertainment by showing things that are only slightly more outrageous and stupid than what passes for normal these days. There are a couple of good stunts and "ooooh, that's gotta hurt" moments. And the prop and wardrobe department really went to town on the costumes. The Rollerballers wear stuff that makes the WWF wrestlers and the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers look positively drab. In the end, it's not a completely unwatchable movie. It's just a completely unremarkable one.


-RevSF Film/DVD editor Jason Myers says, "It's time to start running!"

 
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