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'Rollerball' plays like a bad sports music video

Friday, February 08, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Why Hollywood makes crappy movies (one in an endless series):


RATING: PG-13 for violence, extreme sports action, sensuality, language and some drug references.

STARRING: Chris Klein, LL Cool J, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Jean Reno.

DIRECTOR: John McTiernan.

WEB SITE: www.rollerball.com/



1) Producers make films primarily for teen-agers because they think teen-agers go to the movies more than other age groups. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2) Producers think teen-agers have less brains than a rutabaga.

How else do you explain the howling idiocy of "Rollerball"? This isn't a movie so much as an interminable extreme-sports music video. By comparison, it invests the late, unlamented XFL with the solemnity of National Football League propaganda, the kind that turns "the frozen tundra" into something out of Norse mythology.

Hollywood also assumes its leafy green consumers know "Rollerball" is based on an earlier movie, and that most teens haven't seen it. The familiarity of the title provides a hook to draw people into the theater. The presumed unfamiliarity with the movie itself allows the filmmakers to puree it into mush.

The first "Rollerball," which was made in 1975 and starred James Caan, contained strong elements of social commentary. It took place 40 years in the future, when the world was controlled by corporations that wiped out war, poverty, unrest -- and any vestige of individuality. Rollerball, a sport that combines roller derby, motorcycling and basketball, was the outlet for our violent tendencies and the opiate of the masses.

Today, corporations control Hollywood, so that story line had to go. The current "Rollerball," directed by John McTiernan ("Die Hard") and written by Larry Ferguson ("Maximum Risk") and John Pogue ("The Fast and the Furious" -- yeah, that's the ticket) takes place in the present, but the sport thrives in Kazakh-stan, of all unlikely places.

It recruits players from all over the world. The star player is an American, Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein), whose teammates include Marcus (LL Cool J) and Aurora (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who sports a nasty scar over one eye. Some wear incredibly silly masks and costumes -- individuality is encouraged here.

Everyone's as happy as a Tatar in sauce until Petrovich (Jean Reno), the creator of Rollerball, sees his TV ratings soar after a few carefully planned accidents leave blood on the track and some players in the hospital. Jonathan and Marcus decide to fight back, leading to more mayhem and, ultimately, the kind of worker's revolt Vladimir Lenin never imagined.

The plot, of course, makes no sense. How does a sport centered in Kazakhstan make enough money and, without an American cable deal, get the kind of ratings to pay the lavish salaries necessary to lure players from other countries to what is not exactly the garden spot of Central Asia? (Or maybe it is, but you wouldn't know it from this movie.) How does Petrovich expect to get that American deal when he's trying to kill off his American star?

And if you can explain how Rollerball works, why, you'd be the first -- and that includes people who saw the first movie, where it was just as vague. But let me try -- it looks good in a movie, shot from different angles with staccato editing, a hard-rock soundtrack and things exploding all around.

So why does the most exciting action scene in the movie have nothing to do with Rollerball? It takes place at the beginning and involves Jonathan in a street-luge race down the hills and through the streets of San Francisco.

Actors are superfluous here, which is why you have hunky stiff Klein, supermodel Romijn-Stamos and rap singer Cool J (or is it just J?) in featured roles.

Reportedly, an early cut of this film contained both nudity and some rather brutal violence that would have mandated an R rating. If so, the movie has been edited to PG-13, which means no nudity and toned-down brutality -- when a guy gets beaten to death, you only see the beater.

So maybe some content got cut out, too. Either way, the filmmakers have more in common with Petrovich than with his "proles." Edit down the rating to let more people in the theater, but give the kids what they supposedly want -- as much violent nonsense as the law allows.

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