"Rollerball," a remake of the 1975 cult actioner starring James Caan, was to be one of last summer's tentpole releases. Then word got out from test audiences and film critic Harry Knowles that it wasn't just misguided, but terrible. Knowles went on to say that its one saving grace was the graphic, bone-crunching, over-the-top violence seen in the sports sequences. MGM and director John McTiernan (1999's "The 13th Warrior
") promptly pulled the film from its target August release date to do re-shoots and some extensive re-editing. They apparently didn't listen to Knowles' sole compliment to the picture, as they also have cut out all of the blood and nudity that were its apparent distinguishable qualities, turning a hard R-rating into a PG-13. While the added violence might have made the updated "Rollerball" more memorable, no amount of changes could have saved the film from its fate as a truly despicable motion picture.
After a thrillingly executed bodysurfing race through the streets of San Francisco that has nothing to do with anything that follows, the action relocates to the country of Kazakhstan in central Asia. It is here that an extreme sport that mixes rollerblading, motorcycling, and steel ball-throwing--known as Rollerball--is gaining worldwide viewership.
Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein) is one of the newest players, a fresh-faced ingenue who has turned to Rollerball after plans to play in the NHL fell through. Jonathan is best friends with Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J), and is having a secret affair with Aurora (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), both fellow players. When a string of accidents during the games begin popping up, Aurora suspects that it is team manager and rollerball inventor Petrovich (Jean Reno) who is behind this conspiracy of escalating danger simply to attract more viewers. Worse, she has reason to believe that Jonathan may be next on his hit list.
Save for the aforementioned prologue in San Francisco and a notably fine performance by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (2000's "X-Men
"), "Rollerball" is a shameful exercise in laughable dialogue, incoherent storytelling, jarringly choppy editing, and a directing effort from veteran John McTiernan that would lead one to believe he had never picked up a camera prior to shooting.
From the opening scene to the last, the film is a 99-minute music video where hard rock and heavy metal unrelentingly blast on the soundtrack, drowning out some of the dialogue exchanges (when you're lucky) and without a care in the world for the actual plot. Music videos can be fun to watch, and so can theatrical trailers (basically music videos themselves), but it is not fun to waste nearly two hours of your life watching something so joyless, amateurish, and mean-spirited as "Rollerball." The characters are practically nonexistent, too, thrown so far to the wayside that no one gets more than a single dimension (and sometimes none at all), and no relationships are developed outside of their perfunctory requirements. McTiernan's idea of a powerful romance, for example, is having a naked Romijn-Stamos walk over to Klein and stuff his face into her breasts, only to promptly cut to the next scene.
The three key Rollerball sequences admittedly have the potential to be alluring and entertaining in a trashy way, but in molding the final film into a PG-13 rating, they are so haphazardly edited that it is but a jumble of images that don't seem to add up into a whole. Worth a laugh are the scenes where characters bleed, as the blood has been digitally altered to look like brown, liquidized dirt. An elongated action scene set in the desert midway through has, for no discernible reason, been shot with a night-vision camera and no lighting equipment, making the image grainy and green-toned. This oddball stylistic decision is, coincidentally, the least of this film's problems.
The actors have all done respectable work in the past, and they will no doubt do good work in the future, but they have sold themselves short this time around. Chris Klein (2001's "American Pie 2
"), as star player Jonathan Cross, plays his slim role like a good, ol' boy trying to act tough, and failing. One scene where he is required to have a five o'clock shadow is humorous for the very fact that he is so baby-faced. LL Cool J (1999's "Any Given Sunday
") has even less to do as Marcus Ridley, a totally superfluous character. And Jean Reno (2001's "Just Visiting
") snarls embarrassingly and does nothing but, as the maniacal Petrovich.
The screenplay for "Rollerball," by Larry Ferguson and John Pogue, is such a sloppy one (with some real dialogue howlers) that the studio exec who bought it must have been under a heavy dosage of hallucinogens. If the movie sounds so bad it's good, you'd be sorely mistaken. Wading through this shoddy excuse for a big-budget action-thriller just for a momentary eye-roll is about as enjoyable, I would imagine, as searching for a quarter in a giant pile of elephant feces. "Rollerball" is positively dreadful.
©2002 by Dustin Putman