WFTB Score: 4/20
The plot: His hockey career going nowhere, adventurous young Jonathan Cross joins old friend Marcus in the lucrative but dangerous sport of rollerball. Though aspects of his new life – including secret girlfriend Aurora – are very welcome, he’s less impressed by certain aspects of the sport, not least the absolute control exerted by Alexi Petrovich and his lackey Sanjay who, while outwardly friendly, don’t exactly have the players’ best interests at heart.
Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein) is an adrenalin junkie, but he’s not making his mark in hockey; so when buddy Marcus (LL Cool J) suggests that Jonathan joins him in Kazakhstan to play rollerball, he’s game. Jonathan finds that he’s a natural at the sport, a cross between lacrosse, roller derby and all-in wrestling, but discovers that it comes at a price to most of the players, including the scarred Aurora (Rebecca Romijn) with whom Jonathan starts a secret affair. Jonathan attempts to reason with the sport’s head Alexi (Jean Reno) to improve player safety, but neither he nor assistant Sanjay (Naveen Andrews) have any intention of making the game safer when blood and guts boost the global ratings. When Marcus is critically injured in a nasty grudge match, Cross makes plans to smuggle them both out of the country; however, they discover just how keen Petrovich is to keep hold of his megastar, money-making assets.
If you’ve already read my review of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, you’ll know that although I thought it teemed with ideas, many of them were either daft or poorly brought to the screen. The team behind this remake have discarded almost every idea, good or bad, in search of fake WWE-style violence and mindless MTV-style cool. The result is fast and flashy but so, so empty. In the original, there was at least the notion of an allegory, the idea that the whole world – including the USA – had been distracted and subtly disenfranchised by capitalism and bloodthirsty spectacle, giving Jonathan E a real reason to go on a quest. The remake cops out massively, by staging all the action on the borders of Eastern Europe and Asia; the oligarchs are happy to consume Western goods – the music acts, the fast cars – but their corruption is a product of their nationality rather than their greed, absolving a fully-functioning America of all blame. Where Bartholomew was genteel and conniving, slowly upping the ante by removing rules, Petrovich is a one-dimensional, cackling psycho. There is a subplot of sorts, involving put-upon miners, but it adds virtually nothing apart from a bit of muscle at the film’s messy (and derivative) climax.
One thing the original Rollerball got right was the sport, and it gives me little pleasure to say that John McTiernan’s film muffs this too, substituting clear rules for a Mousetrap-type affair that requires explanation via computer animation, simple outfits with any amount of garish Hallowe’en paraphernalia, and foreboding atmosphere for loud rawk music; the overall effect is the muddled confusion of an X-Fighters event crossed with Starlight Express, with everyone on drugs. Paul Heyman gets the tone about right as the main commentator, but he’s the only one bringing any clarity to the arena.
Outside, there are car chases and other bits of action, the most important being Marcus and Jonathan’s bid for freedom. Unfathomably, the whole sequence is filmed in green and blurry night vision, making it much less clear what’s going on and how everyone feels about it. This sequence is undoubtedly the worst part of the movie, and I can only imagine McTiernan sinking into his seat in the screening room, trying to avoid the confused glances/angry stares of studio executives*. That’s without the fact that whole chunks of the plot are missing: characters can be in totally different places from one shot to the next, any potential excitement left to our imagination (though probably not in night vision); and the 15 certificate means that even the violence isn’t squelchy enough – though I suggest McTiernan would get away with a lot more nowadays.
Still, none of the above matters too much, given Chris Klein’s overwhelming dismalness in the lead role. James Caan isn’t perfect, particularly when he’s supposed to be thinking about things, but he’s muscular, moody and looks as though he could do you real damage if you piss him off. By contrast, floppy-haired Klein appears to be wearing a nice shade of lipstick; his anger is expressed by a pouty face which suggests that at any minute he might beat his dainty hands against your chest, shouting “I hate you I hate you I hate you!”** Not that he’s exactly outshone by anyone: Mr Cool J is half-asleep, and Romijn has a silly love-interest disfigurement, obvious enough to be seen but in no way realistic or detracting from her obvious beauty. Reno proves that Frenchmen can be just as lousy at imitating Russians as anyone else (perhaps Steven Berkoff was busy), while Andrews’ smarminess is more embodied in his suit and hair than anything about his acting.
Because it’s colourful, and noisy, and abysmally misguided – even the nudity, most of which is of the Showgirls “standing about with breasts out” variety – I like Rollerball in the same way as I like Barb Wire: it’s bad, but bad in enjoyably stupid ways. This shouldn’t be confused with thinking it’s a good film. Heck, I didn’t even think 1975’s Rollerball was a particularly good film, and this is an inane imitation of that. On the other hand, it’s an amusing object lesson in how not to update a script for the 21st Century.
NOTES: 1Especially when the cartoon sound effects kick in. I kid you not: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7Dfi-b-qns
2He doesn’t even have the presence of a Caspar van Dien, whose athletics in Starship Troopers must have been a minor trigger for this remake.