Rollerball (2002)

D: John McTiernan
S: Chris Klein, LL Cool J.

Feeble, cowardly adaptation of William Harrison's short story Roller Ball Murder and the screenplay adapted from it by Harrison and director Norman Jewison for the 1975 film. Though the original Rollerball was no masterpiece, it featured many intriguing elements, not least of all the ultra-violent sport at its heart; a game in which teams on roller skates and motor bikes compete for fame, glory and television ratings at the potential risk of their lives. In the 1975 film, Harrison's cyberpunk yarn of a death sport veteran contemplating the emptiness of his life and society was expanded and tweaked into a satire on the sports industry and the soullessness of corporate power. Though overstretched, the film had a sense of its time which gave it resonance. The 2002 version is an empty, badly made nothing of a film which not only strips the story of its political dimensions by shifting the villainy onto Eurotrash thugs and making its (American) heroes less complicit, but fails to deliver a single exciting action scene.

The story begins with daredevil NHL wannabe Chris Klein (American Pie) being encouraged to get in the game by former college bud LL Cool J. (Deep Blue Sea). Rollerball is, at the moment, a fringe sport; a quasi-legal cult success in Eastern European, Asian, and African countries, watched by the teeming masses yearning to be free and overseen by Russian hard man Jean Reno (Godzilla). Klein is initially skeptical. "That's not a sport, its a circus," he says. Early indications are that it is more like pro wrestling. Players outfitted in fetishistic costumes compete in a glass and plastic arena surrounded by commentators from different nations, including magician Penn Jilette as the American one. There doesn't seem to be much sport to it, and the rules are poorly explained as a rash of incomprehensible graphic displays provide useless information and statistics which do not make it any clearer. Yes there is a certain authenticity to this in terms of how sports are currently covered, but it does not help to establish the basic mechanics of the game which we are supposed to take seriously enough to care about those who participate in it.

Of course the plot thickens when the popularity of the sport soars as particular acts of violence are televised, leading to a concern among the players that the game is being compromised. When asked to take this concern seriously too, the audience finds itself wondering why. Throwaway references to the poverty and political turmoil of the states in which the games take place are meant to deepen our respect for Klein, who is vaguely disgusted by what he sees, but this character is too young to command attention. Gone is the tarnished veteran of the original. He is replaced by a wide-eyed schoolboy who simply does not realise the truth. When he does, of course, he stands up to Reno and saves the world by virtue of good old fashioned American gumption (not to mention, on a metaphorical level, neocolonial interventionist foreign policy of the kind satirised by Harrison and Jewison). An unconvincing romance with tough girl Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (X-Men) is thrown in too, just in case this level of political analysis is too much for you.

This is a laughably simplistic interpretation of the story which dumbs down the original moral complexities in the name of more digestible entertainment. Fair enough. The movie world has changed. The political conspiracies of the 1970s have long died on the screen and we should expect to move with the times. Given director John McTiernan's track record (Predator, Die Hard, The Thomas Crown Affair, The 13th Warrior), we might have presumed that we could at least therefore expect a postmodern spectacle. But even on this level, Rollerball is a failure. Visually cluttered, edited with more concern for rapid changes of image than how those images are assembled in sequences, confusing at best, boring at worst, the film is a collection of weak set pieces (one, the most interesting only because it is the most visually bizarre, is shot using night vision) building up to a risible climax with one of those lame action movie punchlines which we presumed had died in the 1990s. The film becomes tedious very quickly, and even hopes of a "so bad it's good" vibe fade amid the visual disarray and thematic vacuousness.

Essentially, Rollerball is a film which can and should be ignored. It is a cinematic footnote to the original which aspires to nothing and achieves it. For a more effective take on the central themes (though again not a film without flaws), try Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, which at least had enough courage to spread the blame for the ills at its centre amongst all who are involved.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.