John McTiernan’s remake of the action film Rollerball falls flat
If there were one movie ripe for remaking, the James Caan action classic Rollerball would be high on my list. The film is set in a future where corporations have erased geographic boundaries (look how silly that prediction was, huh?) using a bloodthirsty sport—a cross between Roller Derby and pro wrestling—as a way to control the populace by showing them the futility of individualism.
The effectiveness of corporate mechanizations is endangered when one player, Jonathan E, is singled out by the faceless masses as their hero. Realizing that the game is rigged and that his own demise is being calculated as a season finale, Jonathan decides to change the rules a bit.
A savagely brutal musing on both the absurdity of violence and the loss of individuality, the Norman Jewison-directed vehicle gave the viewer plenty to chew on when not being pummeled by the hyperkinetic spectacle of the game—the original film’s fatal flaw. One of the biggest hurdles in filming an indictment against violence is the very real trap of also pandering at the same time. Jewison’s failure came in that, by his very success in creating the adrenalinized reality of the game of Rollerball, the film sputtered to a halt when leaving the arena for a little social commentary.
Director John McTiernan took note of this. After essentially creating the template for the modern action film with the first Die Hard, he would seem a good choice to re-gear a contemporary take on Rollerball. Uh oh—bad choice. Unfortunately, he overcompensates by removing all of the former’s social subtext until all we are left with is the game. All that is offered is 98 minutes of headbanger bombast, a commercial for a game we never learn the rules for. A game he doesn’t even bother to show a score for at any given point. A game that is presented in such a quick-cut, shaky-cam manner that one is never quite sure who just got their brains spattered against the track until someone mutters, “Dude, so-and-so just got it. Bummer.” A game with absolutely no context.
After a promising start with a Bullit-styled skateboard race through the streets of San Francisco, all we are left with is a day-by-day, as a Rollerball team hops from continent to continent, while they slowly begin to realize that evil team owner Jean Reno is engineering bloody mishaps to boost ratings, all set to a heavy-metal soundtrack.
This is one big ol’ Marshall stack of a movie, pounding out the same power chord over and over until all one can do is sit back benumbed and wait until all the sound and fury (signifying nothing) subsides … well, aside from leaving the theater.
McTiernan doesn’t do himself any good here by casting an ex-rapper, an ex-supermodel, and a current Keanu Reeves-wannabe as his leads either. Although LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos handle themselves tolerably, Chris Klein is a complete vacuum, absurdly miscast in the shadow of Caan’s Jonathan. At no point does he register anything more than indifference, let alone engendering the charisma that would have a crowd of 50,000 sports fans standing and raising the arena roof with their thundering chant of, “Jon-a-than, Jon-a-than, Jon-a-than!” James Caan he’s not—hell, he isn’t even an effective Keanu.
On the other hand, if all you’re looking for is 98 minutes of listening to such bands as Slipknot and White Zombie pound out the speakers as simulated mayhem flashes scattershot across the screen, then this bad boy is for you.