Another hate-watch to clear the pipes; Norman Jewison’s 1975 sci-fi parable is no masterpiece, but was a fondly remembered bit of my childhood. It’s the story of a deadly sport called Rollerball, and the intention was to warn the world about the seductive dangers of violence; of course, the actors in the film enjoyed playing the fictional game so much, they used to schedule matches between takes for fun, letting the air out of the self-righteous message. Similarly, all the kids at my school loved imitating art by playing Rollerball in the playground; if nothing else, Jewison’s film manages to lecture us at the same time as offering expensive-looking thrills.
Rollerball focuses on an athlete called Jonathan E, so popular that the authorities want him dead, and a great subject for a franchise; after all, you could have a different actor playing the hero each time, since the selling point is the game itself. Die Hard director John McTiernan completely bodges every element of this remake, starting with the setting, which for some reason isn’t the future but the present. Cars, motorcycles, phones and all visually represented objects are all very turn-or-the century, so maybe we’re in an alternate universe, although it also seems odd that everyone seems reliant on using banknotes. There’s a smattering of vague plot points, loosely connected to William Harrison’s original Roller Ball Murders text, but they’re so rare that it’s a surprise when we realise we’re meant to be tracking some kind of corporate misbehaviour.
Replacing lead James Caan with Chris Klein is much like replacing Steve McQueen with Charlie Hunnam, not a like for like substitution, given that Klein is a milquetoast pipsqueak who looks like he couldn’t argue his way out of a parking ticket. His Jonathan E is introduced taking part in a downhill luge race in San Francisco, an activity which immediately suggests that he’s a complete walloper; his cheerfulness after a fellow rider is accidentally fired through the window of a Chinese restaurant doesn’t suggest any depth or remorse, and that hollowness pervades this silly film. The setting is now various Asian continent cities, never clearly identified, and the Rollerball arena looks like a tiny set for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s camp-as-Christmas musical Starlight Express, as do many of the players, who dress as goblins and animals; one even has a glove puppet. The action is confusing, the supposedly macho-game costumes appear to be seven shades of pink, and the peerless French composer Eric Serra contributes the worst musical accompaniment imaginable, a headache-inducing grungy thrum that makes you feel you’re trapped in a Limp Bizkit video.
A stew of bare breasts, ear-piercing noise, muddy violence and incoherence, Rollerball was a huge disaster in 2002; McTiernan was jailed for his conduct while making the film, but presumably plea-bargained his way out of a life-sentence for knowingly creating this utter dud; it’s hard to imagine any venture where the acting honours are shared by LL Cool J and Rebecca Romjin, but somehow Rollerball manages that inglorious feat.