Rollerball (2002)
Review by Doc Ezra

Written by Larry Ferguson and John Pogue, based on the original screenplay and story by William Harrison
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring Chris Klein, Jean Reno, LL Cool J, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos


Rating: R

Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Rent it.

Adrenaline-junkie Jonathan Cross (Klein) is looking for his big break, hopefully in the NHL as the next Wayne Gretzky. But in the meantime, he's making his living running illegal street luge races for cash in the hills of San Francisco. When his old pal and former football teammate Marcus (LL Cool J) breezes into town driving a brand new Porsche and sporting designer duds, he manages to persuade Cross to return with him to Russia, where Marcus has become a big-ticket star in a brand-new sport, the most extreme ever, Rollerball. Unable to resist the lure of the game and the money, Cross agrees, and finds himself catapulted to stardom immediately. Fast cars, faster women, nice clothes, whatever Cross wants, he gets. And the game is demanding enough to challenge his athletic side and keep him interested. That and a secret love affair with teammate Aurora (Romijn-Stamos).

League owner Petrovich (Reno) needs ratings badly, to consolidate a North American cable deal. And nothing seems to spike the ratings like a little blood on the track. So he begins to orchestrate violent "accidents" with increasing frequency, and of escalating seriousness, and watches the ratings skyrocket. Klein gets a little wary when one of these accidents looks too deliberate, and confronts Petrovich, only to discover that he's in so far over his head he couldn't find the surface if he tried. Petrovich, a cold-blooded killer in the former Soviet regime, thinks nothing about threatening Cross's friends and teammates if he doesn't agree to play ball. All this culminates in a bloody championship game, in which Petrovich suspends all fouls and penalties, essentially ordering the other team to murder Cross on the track. But things don't go according to plan, and Cross makes a bid to lead the players in a revolt, like Spartacus on rollerblades.

I must confess this new Rollerball was not nearly as bad as I had suspected. What could have been true excrement was only merely mediocre. Its weaknesses are what you might expect: namely plot and character development. Its strengths are also what you might expect, given the director's serious action-flick street cred: namely non-stop motion and over-the-top action. The games are intense, and bodies fly nearly continuously. Mixing motocross, in-line skating, rugby, and kick-boxing, rollerball is essentially an elaborate excuse to put some people in pads and skates and have them knock the crap out of each other for an hour and forty. The performances are solid, both by the leads and some of the secondary characters (Taktarov and Bryniarski are particular favorites).

For those that like action flicks, Rollerball delivers. If you're interested in understanding characters and motivations, and tightly-plotted suspense stories, you'll be horrifically disappointed. There are story holes you could drive a truck through, but since the story doesn't much matter to the progress and pace of the movie, it doesn't hurt. The makers of the film would have been better off simply dropping any of these spurious side-treks, and stuck to the main thrust of the film: Petrovich bad, Cross good, game violent, vengeance necessary. Done. As simple as it gets, but such basic plot outlines have been driving the action genre for years, good, bad, or indifferent as the individual examples might be.

The DVD presentation is solid, providing a lengthy featurette on the stunts and effects necessary to pull off the game of rollerball on screen. Hiring a handful of extreme games skaters and cyclists to round out the ranks of the league, as well as play stunt double for the lead performers, the crew found themselves with a cheap source of between-take entertainment, as the X-Gamers couldn't stop playing on the rollerball track. In addition to the stunt docu, there's a Rollerball league roster, detailing every team and every player, and an entertaining commentary track with the three leads: Klein, LL Cool J, and Romijn-Stamos. The soundtrack rocks, IMHO, so the Rob Zombie video, while non-essential, is entertaining. I'd have liked to hear somebody at least acknowledge somewhere that this was a re-make of an older film, but the standing approach by all involved in the docus and commentary is simply to ignore the fact that the first version exists at all. It's not mentioned once, as near as I can remember, in any portion of the bonus material, which I find very strange.

If you're a huge fan of McTiernan, this one might be worth owning, but otherwise I'd call it a rental. Don't go in looking for Oscar moments, and you probably won't be disappointed. In fact, if you are as afraid of this flick as I was before watching, you'll likely be mildly surprised.

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