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Rollerball

No Award
2002

‘…a stew of bare breasts, ear-piercing noise, muddy violence and incoherence…’

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.

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  1. Never a movie did I anticapate more . . . and have hated more. I walked out on it. It’s an honor that I also bequeathed to Solo: A Star Wars Story. Yes, it’s that bad.

    I remember how many said the “game was confusing” in the ’75 original . . . well, the 2002 game definitely was confusingly stupid. When it comes to Rollerball rips, I’ll stick to Wesley Snipes’s Future Sport with Dean Cain in the “Jonathan E.” role. At least the game — with its hoverboards in a bowl — made sense.

    • Must give Future Sport a look. Agree that expectation vs really is a big issue here. And the game itself was a lot clearer in the old version, the ramps and gantries just do not compute here…but I just got my blu-ray of Solo for a reappraisal, and I’ll be ready to argue the toss about that one; I think it’ll be better than my first watch suggested…

  2. I’m not quite sure which film you were reviewing the 1975 classic or the 2022 disaster. Rollerball (1975) is one of my favorites. I think it prophesied modern sports adulation and the connection between sport, business, and politics. When you look at modern sport and how it has become a political lynchpin as well as the brutality of US football you realize that Rollerball had a lot on the … ball. In some ways Colin Kaepernick is a modern Jonathan E. I rarely do anything twice, let alone watch a movie twice – but I enjoy returning to Rollerball every few decades.

    • That’s a great comparison, didn’t think of that, but Colin K is a great analogy. Review is a bit of a mixture of praise for the 75 version and despair about the remake, but you’re right, they correctly call the impact of money and tv on sport with real acuity…I return to this one regularly too…

  3. When I watched the original, I have to admit, I was looking for something “more” that wasn’t delivered. Thankfully, Caan carried the film and was a great toughguy.

    maybe if they reboot the reboot LL Cool J can be the main character?

  4. I’ve seen this one, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. It really was quite the horrible movie, and there was little to nothing that even had me remotely interested. Didn’t know about McTiernan getting jailed by the way, but eh…no surprise I guess😊
    I’m maybe going to make a sequel myself called IroningBall🤔🤔🤔

  5. I heard this was dreadful. Don’t think I’m up to the hate-watch challenge so I’ll pass. You’d have thought they’d do better, as the concept still had legs. Alita: Battle Angel was basically just Rollerball in CGI.

    • And I loved Alita! I still think this concept has legs, but this is a model of what a reboot can do wrong. I mean, glove puppets?

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