In its original conception and edit, "Rollerball" (IMDb listing) was a hard-charging R-rated bonanza warning of the dangers inherent in the modern sports business. Now, with Hollywood looking more at the bottom line than artistic truths, the film was bumped from several release dates in 2001 and severely reedited to a more teenager-friendly PG-13. While this practice drives me insane in general, no film has been hurt more by needless alterations than "Rollerball." What was once a powerful and entertaining indictment, has now been crippled to a whiz-bang time killer.
Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein, "American Pie") is a failed NHL wannabe without focus in his life. Enter Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J), an old friend offering Jonathan the opportunity to travel to Russian and Asian cities to play a burgeoning, barbaric game called Rollerball. Fought on a circle-8 track by masked men and women on rollerblades and motorcycles, Rollerball is controlled by the greedy owners (embodied by Jean Reno, "Leon") who demand more violence for ratings purposes. Jonathan quickly becomes the biggest star of the game and soon learns, with the help of his teammate and lover Aurora (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, "X-Men"), that the owners have decided that death will be included in the games, as it helps goose the precious ratings.
"Rollerball" is about violence, or how violence intrigues us all at the cost of human life. The original incarnation of this film was produced in 1975, starred James Caan and was directed by Norman Jewison. The original set the story in the distant future as a way of warning that this type of savage sport was on our horizon if we didn't change our ways. Director John McTiernan's remake is more urgent, setting the film three years from now and changing the violent imagery from Jewison's labored symbolism to a more honest reality. In doing so, McTiernan has also turned Jewison's sluggishly paced film into a blitzkrieg assault on the senses. An assault that completely relies on violence to furnish the ultimate impact of the tale. Now with the violence taken out, McTiernan's story is neutered to a point of distraction. A morality tale on the degenerative effects of violence in sports with all the violence taken out? Even though the PG-13 rating is pushed to the limits in the film, it still isn't enough.
Also, due to the hummingbird-on-coke attention spans of today's audiences, the story has been critically severed in the pursuit of MACH 3 pacing. Though the large pseudo-conspiracy plot between the owners of Rollerball teams in Jewison's version remains, it is not given the attention it deserves in this new incarnation. McTiernan doesn't spend enough time focusing on the conflict between the players of the game and the management. There are hints of worldwide gambling addiction to Rollerball, and the Big Brother tactics the owners use to control the players, but none of this is fully realized. Also, nudity, sex, language and pop singer Pink have been rather carelessly removed for the PG-13, often at the expense of defining character moments. While the Rollerball scenes are the best in the film, they were meant to act as a counterbalance to all the other happenings in the story. Without the full intended versions of these scenes the result is an unbalanced film.
Even with the tampering, you cannot stop John McTiernan's clear concepts for the picture. One of the best action directors working today, McTiernan has passion for the world of the Rollerball sport, and it shows in every frame. With assistance from production designer Norman Garwood and costumer Kate Harrington, the look of "Rollerball" is often jaw-droppingly perfect. From the glossy sheen of the track to the "Eyes Wide Shut"-orgy-scene-meets-roller-derby costumes, time and effort went into rendering the bizarre, yet entirely believable realm in which the game is played. The first "Rollerball" was a work of fiction, but the remake as created by McTiernan makes a strong case that a game like this could pop up within the next year if the timing is right.
McTiernan also has strong visual ideas for the film. One sequence is set in a barren desert at night, as Jonathan and Marcus try to make a getaway on a motorcycle. Other films shot in pure darkness generally use some mild, unexplained source of light to illuminate the action. McTiernan has a nice idea to change that, electing to shoot the scene with green night-vision cameras that capture all the action. The tension in the scene is more compelling that way, suggesting a documentary feel to this decidedly Hollywood film. Also of note is the opening street luge sequence that is easily the most breathlessly assembled action set piece in the picture.
In the lead role, Chris Klein once again lets down the rest of the film with his performance. While I don't argue his good looks or his athleticism, Klein is a bad actor by any standards. Unable to express an honest emotion, or react appropriately to danger, Klein is wasting everyone's time in "Rollerball." Co-star LL Cool J is much better here, using his charisma to sell accurately just how one could get sucked into the increasingly dangerous game. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos cuts an impressive figure as Jonathan's lover. Buried under a bad haircut and some facial scars, Romijn-Stamos still manages to hit nicely some of the only emotional beats the film allows. And if you can understand him, Frenchman Jean Reno puts in his time as the "bad guy" of the film, a role he could do in his sleep. Reno is animated enough, but often swallows his dialog. With a film as fast-paced as "Rollerball," maybe McTiernan should've considered some subtitles on the Reno scenes.
For the finale, McTiernan moves away from Jewison's ambiguity, choosing to spell everything out for the audience. While I expected this alteration, it still makes me wish that McTiernan, and more pointedly the studio MGM, would've just left the film alone. What remains of "Rollerball" is good, tight filmmaking, but storywise? A flat out mess.
Filmfodder Grade: C