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
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.