I thought I had seen the worst movie of the year (it’s only February, after all) the night before when I went to a screening of Collateral Damage. But Collateral Damage, at least, was so bad that it was funny. Rollerball is just plain bad.
A remake of the 1971 Norman Jewison/James Caan “classic,” Rollerball takes its title from the fictional gladiatorial sport depicted in the movie.
Get In The Game
PG-13 for drugs, violence, sensuality, language
Rollerball is sort of like an XFL, adult-Quidditch-for-muggles, kind of sport. A team of skaters and a motorcyclist travel around a figure-8 track. A small metal orb is released into the track and the team must take the ball around the 8, through the middle, and hit a metal target. Meanwhile, the opposing team does everything it can to steal the ball or thwart the play.
The game sounds pretty dumb, and even on screen it isn’t that interesting to watch. So to compensate, teams dress in flamboyant plastic and leather. Twice as much violence is tolerated on the track as in your average hockey playoff. Team members wear spinal cord protectors to make sure they don’t end up drooling and in diapers by their thirtieth birthdays.
Rollerball isn’t allowed in America — we’re apparently too sophisticated for such senseless and violent entertainment — so a cabal of French, Russian, and Chinese businessmen run the game. And since they’re such un-American scoundrels, they are willing to occasionally allow brutality, even orchestrate it, for the sake of ratings.
The film is told from the point of view of a naive young American player, Jonathan (Chris Klein, looking like a young Keanu Reeves), who becomes disenchanted with the corruption and greed of the Rollerball league. He leads the other Rollerballers to rise against their international corporate masters.
Failing All Over
Despite its high energy and occasionally engrossing hard-rock soundtrack, the film fails on many fronts.
For one, the film feels like it was cut from a longer version of itself. An opening scene in the streets of San Francisco sticks out from the rest of the film like a skin tumor. The rest of the movie takes place in black and red arenas in the former Soviet states. The look of San Francisco in the daylight just doesn’t belong.
Another sequence was so jarring that I almost thought it was a mistake. Jonathan and his mentor Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J) decide to flee on their own. Ridley opens the blinds in his hotel room and suddenly we cut to a night-vision shot of a truck on a road.
High contrast, grainy green-and-black footage indicates we are watching this truck from the side of the road with some sort of night-vision spy apparatus. But then suddenly we’re inside the truck with our night vision goggles on, and then we’re far away, looking at the pursuers. For ten minutes, the film runs in night vision mode without an explanation, without a transition, and without any apparent reason. It’s just a confusing filmmaking trick that yanks you out of the movie and into reality.
Even the characters fail to liven things up. All the owners and league commissioners are so evil they’re hard to take seriously. The naive American is a bland hero — an archetype that only works well when you have a band of colorful sidekicks, like in Star Wars. But the only other remarkable characters are “the girl” (Aurora, played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and “the mentor” (Ridley).
Actually, LL Cool J brings a little sparkle and shine to the screen. Somehow his glitzy tough-but-approachable persona works even in this film. But it’s not enough to make up for the rest of the movie.
Some noble morals try to sneak into the story line. There is a subplot about exploited miners that reminds us how sports are an often misguided and ineffectual outlet for blue collar frustrations.
There is also Jonathan’s story of moral redemption. He is supposed to open the world’s eyes to the fact that Rollerball crosses the line between entertainment and barbarity. But his own moral redemption comes way too late. The corruption and danger in Rollerball is revealed very early on — in fact it needs no “revealing” because it’s obvious to anyone with eyes. But Jonathan doesn’t reject Rollerball on moral grounds right away. He decides to ride it out, make a little money, and take a wait-and-see stance. Maybe the problem will go away if he waits long enough.
Rollerball takes the Catholic notion that deathbed redemptions can make up for a life of murder and mayhem. A movie that hitches its moral to that wagon gets to have it both ways — cashing in on the exploitation of violence, then after it has your money, denouncing the exploitation of violence.
If there’s a redeeming quality to Rollerball, it’s that by comparison it makes Collateral Damage seem like less of a waste of time.