Original 'Rollerball' beaten to a pulp

Review: John McTiernan's remake is way too green and impersonal.

February 08, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Norman Jewison's endearingly clunky 1975 cult movie Rollerball was like Brave New World on roller skates. It presented an anti-utopian vision of a corporate future, with Teflon design and architecture, feel-good drugs and a soulless high life straight out of Antonioni movies or Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

Jewison's movie is erratic even on a sci-fi pulp level. But it tells a coherent and quasi-adult tale. An omnipotent international corporation invents the sport of Rollerball - combining roller derby, rugby and motorbikes - to demonstrate the superiority of teams to individuals. Then it moves to eliminate a Rollerball champ named Jonathan (James Caan) when he becomes bigger than the game.

John McTiernan's remake - or as his star LL Cool J puts it, "remix" - is like Rollerball on jet-powered training wheels. With a collegiate cast headed by fresh-faced Chris Klein (American Pie) as Jonathan instead of the charismatic Caan, and teams adorned with Halloween masks, the game comes off as a mild teen nightmare. Jewison took the time to lay out Jonathan's warrior strategies and the way the game is supposed to be played, upping the tension of each successive match and making you root despite yourself. McTiernan operates like Drew Carey on Whose Line Is It Anyway? - nothing is prepared, and the points don't matter.

The new film reduces the story to the ragged present-day tale of a corporate megalomaniac (Jean Reno) in the former Soviet Union, who rigs the games to include murder when the ratings rise with every splash of blood. We're supposed to comprehend that Reno's greedy innovator represents the new capitalist oppressors in the post-Soviet states and that his cutthroat strategies threaten to dominate global media and commerce. But since the movie rarely leaves the Rollerball rink, the owner's box and the control booth, you have to accept on the evidence of a few unruly crowd scenes that the sport could inspire revolution.

Last year's low-budget, scabrously funny Series 7 beat Rollerball to the punch as a satire of extreme TV games bleeding into reality. The only part of this Rollerball that can click with viewers right now is the almost nonstop demolition derby between a spotless good guy - Klein's Jonathan - and the ferocious Rollerballers that the evil Petrovich amasses against him.

The editing is so desperate that the movie plays as one continuous bout, with pitiful dramatic interludes intruding like up-close-and-impersonal spots before each game period. Jonathan is an aimless San Francisco street surfer who follows his pal Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J) to Kazakhstan in Central Asia, where he joins the Rollerball team known as the Horsemen. Jonathan becomes Ridley's unofficial co-captain and a rookie phenom at smashing opponents and scoring goals.

They unite diverse personalities, including the mysterious Aurora (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who becomes Jonathan's lover. When the injuries escalate, Aurora is the one who discovers that cameras have been cued beforehand to every accident. Jonathan catches on quick. First he tries to escape with Ridley. When that doesn't work, he revolts.

McTiernan has made some entertaining action films, including Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995). But now he's contrived successive pallid retreads of two of Jewison's deluxe entertainments from a quarter-century ago. McTiernan's 1999 version of Jewison's 1968 The Thomas Crown Affair made hash of its heist. (The key was leaving a booby-trapped briefcase in an art museum, though no museum permits a briefcase in a gallery.) What's worse, McTiernan failed to match Jewison's visual playfulness or the epochal chemistry of his stars, Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

In Rollerball, McTiernan lowers the original's aim without hitting its target. No doubt the design of the arena in this version required experts on rollercoasters as well as roller rinks, and it must have been backbreaking for extreme sports-people to achieve their seamless mixes with the actors. But the rules go by so quickly and the games are cut so fast that you react to the scoring drives and crashing bodies with the impersonal and diminishing thrill of seeing metal animals twirl around and pop back up at sideshow shooting galleries.

There's something junior varsity about the whole sensibility that makes the new version seem more dated than the old one. It's like an earthbound version of Harry Potter's Quidditch without the personality and fun.

Rollerball

Starring Chris Klein, Jean Reno, LL Cool J, and Rebecca Romijn Stamos

Directed by John McTiernan

Rated PG-13 for violence, extreme sports action, sensuality, language and some drug references

Released by MGM/UA

Running time 98 minutes

Sun score: *

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