ROLLERBALL (2002) [3/10]


ONE-LINE REVIEW: Troubled-in-production remake is surprisingly watchable for an hour – culminating in an unexpectedly bizarre action sequence – but then messily collapses into an embarrassing dog’s breakfast of a finale.

When Rollerball veteran Ridley (LL Cool J) snaps “You from Omaha or somethin’?” at his greenhorn team-mate Jonathan (Chris Klein), it’s an in-joke for Klein fans. The actor really is from Omaha, where he was plucked out of high-school by local auteur Alexander Payne to appear alongside Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick in Election.

But the joke’s on Klein – because just as Jonathan discovers that the glitzy, glamorous, high-speed, high-paying world of Rollerball is really a lethal showbiz jungle of corruption and lies, Klein must have a similar view of a Hollywood movie machine that’s delivered him back-to-back box-office bombs. The shockingly unfunny ‘comedy’ Say It Isn’t So came and went with little fuss. But Rollerball has been a spectacularly public disaster – repeatedly re-written and re-cut during an especially tortuous pre-production that reached its nadir when Ain’t It Cool News ‘critic’ Harry Knowles was jetted to New York for a private screening. When Knowles proceeded to savaged the film on his website, the studio panicked, postponed the release date and once again reached for the editing scissors.

The resulting movie is, of course, a mess – closer to an LSD nightmare of Starlight Express than anything in Norman Jewison’s 1975 original. But it’s not quite the turkey-on-wheels audiences have been led to expect. Initial reports suggested the new version would dispense entirely with the political angles which were, truth be told, the least interesting aspects of Jewison’s pseudo-liberal, any-excuse-for-a-punch-up picture. But Larry Ferguson and John Pogue’s script is, at first, if anything too overtly political.

Instead of a futuristic USA, this Rollerball takes place in modern-day Kazakhstan – presented as a post-Communist, rabidly capitalist free-for-all playground for ruthless entrepreneurs like Alexei Petrovich (Jean Reno – bad accent, worse performance). The game takes place in a huge arena at the centre of a major city – unnamed, but presumably Alma Ata – and is beamed all over the world. The audiences are made up of local manual workers, mainly miners, for whom the human-pinball sport is explicitly a bread-and-circuses diversion from the exploitative horrors of their working lives.

The unexpected geographical and socio-economic background makes the first hour of Rollerball a surprisingly painless watch – though you do keep wondering what Paul Verhoeven would do with the material. The game itself is, of course, completely incomprehensible, presented in a tediously repetitive series of sub-standard action sequences full of cutaways to the devious Petrovich, cackling maniacally behind in his VIP box, protected by plexiglass screens.

But just as we’re starting to get fed up, McTiernan makes a quite staggeringly unexpected diversion into left-field. Having finally had enough, Jonathan and Ridley make a daring bid for freedom, aided by miner-turned-Rollerballer Denekin (Oleg Taktarov, from 15 Minutes) and Aurora (X-Men‘s Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) – Jonathan’s ass-kicking, ‘secret’ girlfriend who features in the film’s shockingly underdeveloped romantic subplot.

Jonathan and Ridley flee the city on motorbike and head off down the deserted freeways – deserted, because Kazakhstan has the trappings of a western-style infrastructure, but very few people rich enough to drive cars. As the tarmac gives way to unpaved rural dirt-road, McTiernan switches to green-monochrome night-vision cameras for the remainder of the sequence, as Petrovich gives chase. As the motorbike heads out into the vast, unpopulated terrain we get a real sense that this is a genuinely new frontier for the cinema – appropriately enough, the digital-video cameras give an incongruous feeling that we’re watching the first Dogme blockbuster action sequence. And just as it’s disconcerting to hear about ‘mines’ and ‘desert cities’ these days in a film that isn’t set in some far-off galaxy, in several shots the central Asian expanses radiate an eerie other-worldliness that justifies J G Ballard’s famous comment, “Earth is the alien planet.”

But it’s all downhill from here – and how. Everything after the night-vision sequence is a complete dog’s breakfast: incoherent, badly edited, impossible to follow, sloppy on every front – keep your eyes open for the Russian Orthodox priest who, hilariously, pops up for a few moments. It’s a desperate, breakneck race to the finish-line that suggests the film-makers ran out of money, ideas, or patience with the endless re-cuts. Even the intriguing political angles get coarsened into opportunistic crud: “They’re standing up to the monsters who run their lives!” we’re told, as the peasants go into revolt mode. By this stage, many audiences will struggle to contain similar levels of discontent.


Neil Young

25th June 2002
(seen 24th June, UGC Middlesbrough)