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Rollerball Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 26, 2008

    Rollerball Review
    John McTiernan was once THE super-hot name bandied around Tinseltown. With immortal trendsetters like Predator and Die Hard under his belt, the guy could seemingly do no wrong. And yet, disaster was to come calling as surely as night follows day. Medicine Man and The Last Action Hero flopped, and no-one can honestly say that Die Hard With A Vengeance was any good. The Hunt For Red October marked a definite change of pace, but a terrible experience with the super-ego of Michael Crichton whilst making The 13th Warrior (which I love, by the way, despite the editing almost wrecking the movie) seemed to ensure that his once dynamic and ball-busting status as one of the greatest action-movie directors around was to be buried under studio interference and a lack of confidence with such material. Yet he seemed quite assured with the more sedate thrills of his remake of Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair, enough to assume that he would be up to scratch to tackle the director's 1975 sci-fi classic, Rollerball, and put his own spin on it.

    Taking one of the great seventies future-bad pictures in Jewison's stately, yet pulverising adaptation of William Harrison's sublime short story Rollerball Murder, which first appeared in Esquire, sadly rammed the final nail in McTiernan's coffin with all the force of one of the mighty titular steel balls, themselves, with people staying away from it in droves. Entitled just Rollerball for its movie incarnations, the plot, in all cases, revolves around a deadly, futuristic sport that mixes roller-derby, American Football and motorcycle racing around a circular track-cum-neo-gladiatorial arena for the appeasement of the jaded masses watching around the world on TV. The point of it all, back then, was to curtail the violent tendencies of the population and cultivate what was ostensibly a Utopia of peace and plenty. Of course, Eden is never that simple and, rocking the established order by becoming bigger and more celebrated than the Game, itself, was its heroic and unbeatable superstar, Jonathan E (James Caan). The more fame and adulation he gets, the more the executives change the rules in order to wipe him out. But Jonathan is the “greatest Rollerballer that ever lived” and a legend that cannot die.

    McTiernan's revamp actually isn't even in the future. It is now, well 2005 actually, and Rollerball is played in the former Russian state of Kazakhstan. The big money offered by the game's promoters lures potential superstars from all around the world to a land of poverty and mob-rule. The celebrity and the high life are temporary, however, once the suits realise that violence and death on the track boosts the ratings, and the profits go through the roof when games are rigged, rules are changed and blood pre-ordered. Enter Chris Klein's US hotshot Jonathan, pretty-boy skater and Rollerballer-extraordinaire who, along with his beefy buddy Ridley (LL Cool J), who may ride a mean motorcycle but is a loving family-man at heart (ahhh), discover the dirty deeds that are going on behind the scenes. But when escape seems impossible from a game that has now become a matter of life and death, the only option is to expose the system for what it is and to spark off a revolution.

    One heavy criticism that was always levelled against this version of Rollerball was that nobody could understand the rules of the game. Well, to be quite frank, there's not a lot to grasp, really. Race around the track twice, keeping the ball in plain view at all times and then you can shoot for a goal. And if the other team happen to have the ball, then you can smack, crack and bash 'em down until you've got it. Pretty simple, actually. But what does conspire to muck it all up, is the cack-handed way in which the matches are filmed and choreographed which just tends to jumble the image up with whirling, twirling bodies, streaks of colour and non-too gratuitous violence. The fundamental error is that these games are no longer exciting. With Jewison's original, we hardly knew the participants other than Jonathan E and his Texan wildcat buddy, Moonpie (played by John Beck) any better than we do this mob, but we still cared when someone got battered and splattered across the track because it was far more convincingly depicted. James Caan shrieking “Get off the rails!” and his subsequent expression, aghast at the loss of a team-mate whose face has been sheared off, is, hands-down, more effective than anything that McTiernan or Klein can come up with here. The arena, too, is a complete mess, with so many ramps, jumps, tucks and bends that it resembles one of those Quasar laser arenas for the kids. And whoever it was who thought up that ridiculous hamster tunnel wants to suck on a gas-blasted rollerball themselves. The original track was open, streamlined and beautifully, brutally simple. McTiernan's is like the set from TV's Gladiators has just crash-landed onto a Wacky Warehouse.

    The thing is, if the game really existed these days, I have no doubt that it would, indeed, look something like this, be organised like this and feature participants dressed-up in just such a glam-rock, pro-wrestling, fetishist's paradise fashion as the teamsters on show here. Inevitably, films such as The Running Man - itself a riff on Rollerball - made the point about the ridiculousness of it all a long time ago with some of the naffest nemesis the screen has ever fielded. But lampooning the premise with crazy stage personas, as true to life as this may yet prove to be, ultimately dilutes the tension and the aggression. It doesn't matter if an opponent is built like a human freight-train if he's kitted-out in something that looks like it was rejected from the 1980 Flash Gordon for being too camp. The kitsch-and-kill ratio doesn't balance, I'm afraid. The players in this Rollerball look more like members of the Cirque Du Soleil than daredevil speed warriors.

    Chris Klein, with his high-cropped black hair, actually seems to be doing a fairly passable Keanu Reeves impression and, like Neo, himself, he even aspires to topple a totalitarian regime that is milking the masses by exploiting a minority. But even if he managed to pull off a credibly patriotic Air Cavalryman in We Were Soldiers he is hopelessly miscast as a tough-guy Rollerball-champ. There are moments of him glaring at opponents with a suck-your-cheeks-in pout that is anything but intimidating. And off the track and dealing with the volatile trap that he has found himself in, he reveals that has no charisma at all, so we are left with nothing to believe in, nothing to root for. His tenacity in the game and his stubborn petulance outside of it when the real deal is laid down for him and the unsavoury alternatives made clear leave no mark upon the film or our empathy with it. With someone as inexpressive and plastic as Klein, the sense of jeopardy or of heroism is squandered. There is also a horrible thing that McTiernan does a few times too often of sniping frames away to make some kind of pop-stylish flourish and it is usually Klein's goofy face that is the recipient - promo-shots for the girls, eh?

    Things don't fare any better with Jonathan's biking buddy, either. I like LL Cool J but he has never yet convinced that he is any of the characters that I have seen him play. You can tool him up and put him in body-armour but I won't buy him as a member of a SWAT-team. Put him in a chef's apron, but I won't believe that he is a cook. And you can put him in pads, a helmet and shiny leathers and sit him on a motorbike, but I absolutely will not be taken in for one minute that he is a Rollerballer. No way. To give him his due, though, he is not required to actually do a great deal, although he does seem to be in an awful lot of the movie, which certainly means that he makes his presence felt. But the inclusion of these two supposedly “cool” stars is geared up for one thing - street cred. All American good looks and hip rap-star sass 'n' bling. James Caan, with his scratchy-wire hair, unassuming, almost monosyllabic nature and sense of glum disillusionment runs absolute circles round these postage-stamp characterisations.

    Jean Reno, on the other hand, can slum it with the best of them. When he's good, he's excellent. When he's bad ... well, he's actually still quite good, isn't he? Here, he manages to inject some seriously dangerous loopy-juice into the mix, coming over as deliriously cold-hearted and off-kilter. John Houseman, as the original's Mr. Bartholomew, was utterly magnificent and totally convincing as a power-mad Corporation-man and, at least, the makers of this version didn't make the unholy error of trying to put a spin on his erudite gentleman of foul intent. In fact, I quite like what they did by turning his nefarious puppet-master into a more politically relevant string-puller. Petrovitch is a vicious opportunist, a thug in a suit and his penchant for violent exploitation is one-hundred percent the kind of thing that takes place around the world in virtually every medium. Arguably, the neo-capitalist angle is not as interesting a device as the almost satiric revelation of Jewison's version. But this is probably only because in this updating there is no revelation. The battle-lines are clearly drawn almost from the word go. Whereas Mr. Bartholomew was much more insidious, and strangely likeable in spite of it, Petrovitch, even when he is splashing the cash and taking care of his “currently” hot properties never once gives the illusion of being anything other than a corrupt, self-centred user. His type of power is genuine and, really speaking, we shouldn't knock the film for depicting it as such. The problem, however, is that comparisons to the original are simply unavoidable, even if McTiernan and screenwriters Larry Ferguson and John Pogue have largely deviated from the “dark side of paradise” affair that gave Jewison's its critical edge. But without the intelligent subtext and the biting satire, this version is forced to live on its own merits as an action film - and, in truth, it is sorely lacking in the requisite action. Confused, clumsy and unforgivably garish, the Rollerball games are like Joel Schumacher does Strictly Come Dancing, only nowhere near as exciting, or as violent. It is true that some elements were cut down to secure a lower rating (and I'm sure there was talk about releasing an unrated version at some point), but even if they had heads batted off by steel balls and bodies crunched under bikes, this Rollerball wouldn't even come close to the elegant ferocity of the spiked-glove mayhem of James Caan and his Houston Team.

    But, to jack things up in other departments, McTiernan takes a leaf out of Paul Verhoeven's book, in that we have mixed changing rooms, which allows for some nudity ... and with the awesome Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (X-Men's blue-dream Mystique) suiting and de-suiting as biker-babe and vulnerable love-interest-cum-rebel Aurora, there is, at least, some veritable eye-candy to help while away the game interludes. But, back to the meat of the matter, McTiernan drops the ball all too often. Having suits and accents clutter up the background with double-dealings and shady scams - step forward Lost's Naveen Andrews - takes too much emphasis off the game, and the one damn thing that we all want to see more of is the game. That's why we're here. Jewison's movie was a classic, even though it completely decelerated when it left the track to focus on Jonathan's quest for an identity and for a purpose, sections that, admittedly, still divide the audience who don't quite grasp the importance of the swing-shifts in pace. With his story, the whole point was to explore the future society and the reasons why individuality was thought to be dangerous by the corporations governing it. There were many levels to the film, yet what we really wanted, just like the blood-craving crowds of spectators wanted, was to see more Rollerball. This was the point being made. Given either Utopia or a Dictatorship, we, as a race, would still thirst for death and destruction. Thus, any self-respecting remake - if it actually believes it should exist in the first place - should just go with the flow and give in to the chaos that audiences out there still crave. Although we should doff our caps to the noble notion of at least attempting to come up with something new instead of just rehashing a loved and admired original concept, in this particular case, it clearly wasn't the right direction to have gone in.

    McTiernan's panache and flair for kinetic, macho action is nowhere to be seen in this movie. Berserkers may strut and stomp, humourless henchmen may swagger and threaten and bodies may hurtle through the air, but it is all done with such an absence of intensity or emotion that the accumulated effect is like watching CITV for a couple of hours - retina-scorching and patronising. At the risk of sounding like a simple ghoul - where's the violence? This is teen-brigade fodder, sanitised and with its original message surgically removed ... but without any blood or even a scar left behind.

    Another detriment and a serious one as far as I am concerned is the inclusion of Eric Serra as the score composer. Serra is the worst composer that I have ever heard. Now, you know how much I love my movie scores - as many CD soundtrack reviews will show - but Serra almost destroyed Goldeneye for me and his Euro-trash pop-rock urban clash-clamour is something that sets my teeth on edge. Whereas the original Rollerball arguably could have done with an actual bonafide score, rather than the classical pieces that Jewison spread across the top in a surprisingly overly subtle manner, McTiernan's sounds simply dreadful. And the use of a match-time rock band by the side of the track just smacks of that tripe kids' animated TV show FreeFonix. One moment when Jonathan bashes on the plexi-glass to start them up in order for some musical fuel for a vengeance-spree against the opposing team is excruciatingly bad. The snippet of demon-gimp band Slipknot is hardly going to set the world on fire, either. So, audio-wise, this take very definitely sucks big-time. In fact, because I feel that a movie's score is so important to the finished product, whenever I see Serra's name attached to a production it already has ground to make up, and points to claw back before it has even begun.

    Make no mistake, this could have worked. But, alas, it didn't. Thus, we have another pointless remake that is made all the sadder when you consider just who was at the helm. Predator and Die Hard seem an awful long time ago, don't they, John?

    This UK disc plays fine on US machines.