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Rollerball (2002)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Chris Klein, Jean Reno, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, LL Cool J, Naveen Andrews

Written By: Larry Ferguson, John Pogue Directed By: John McTiernan

The Short Version

You know you have a winner when the studio refuses to release a movie for almost a year.

You know you have a winner when your stars do the talk show circuit and say “this movie sucks.”

You know you have a winner when some idiot thinks editing out Rebecca Romijn’s boobs will increase ticket sales.

You know you have a winner when the most memorable line involves Jean Reno calling LL Cool J his homey.

If any of that actually sounds like your idea of a winner, then Rollerball is your pot of… something.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Processed crap in a can that’s just a mess.

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Reserved strictly for those individuals who are highly motivated to get drunk really fast on the cheap, which is a requirement for making it through this movie.

“The other rules are Russian and complicated.”

I remember walking through theatres in early 2001 and seeing the advance posters for Rollerball.  In the beginning, I was rather excited about seeing it.  Even though it had certainly had its problems, I liked the original Rollerball, and figured that if any director could do a better job with a remake of it, surely it would be John McTiernan, he of Predator and Die Hard fame.

Originally, Rollerball was supposed to come out one week before the Memorial Day rush.  Then it got pushed back to July.  Okay; that kind of thing happens from time to time.  Post production can run into problems that cost a few weeks; I get that.  Then July turned to August, and August turned to just “2001” with no date attached.

This, my friends, is never a good sign.  When a studio that isn’t going bankrupt sits on a $70,000,000 movie for the better part of a year, you know there’s a major problem.

Finally, in February of 2002 – during a month when studios tend to either re-release Oscar contenders or “dump their garbage,” so to speak – the film was allowed to hit theatres, and then the public at large finally got to see what the problem was.

The problem was Rollerball itself, a movie so bad that it had failed to earn passing marks from any audience it had been tested with, and which had its own stars doing the talk show promo circuit and declaring that “Rollerball sucked!”

Well, at least you can’t call LL Cool J a liar.

Our story bears only scant resemblance to anything that came before.  Instead of a farther flung future, we start off just a few years ahead in 2005.  Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li) is an NHL wannabe who can’t ever quite make the cut for a team.  (They want him to play defense.  Poor baby.)  While he waits for a team to realize his true greatness as a forward, he makes ends meet by participating in illegal extreme sports matches, such as the street luge through San Francisco traffic that starts off our film.  Things go bad, stuff gets crashed into, and when it’s over, the cops are keen to arrest Cross on all kinds of charges.  Lucky for him that his old buddy Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J, Deep Blue Sea) happens to be driving by to spirit him away.   While they’re in the car, Ridley suggests that Cross come back overseas with him to join up in this new “Rollerball” league that’s taking Asia and parts of the former Soviet Union by storm.  Deciding that it’s better than jail, Cross takes him up on the offer, and a few months later, the white bread pretty boy is the biggest star in the league.

But things aren’t all wine and roses in the land of Rollerball.  The league’s owner, Alexis Petrovich (Jean Reno, Ronin), will do anything to get himself a North American cable deal, and if that means boosting his ratings by arranging for some blood to get spilled on the track, so be it…

To call Rollerball a train wreck is unfair, but it is only unfair because there has never been a train big enough to wreck that hard.  It’s as though John McTiernan and his fellow producers watched a screener of Battlefield: Earth and bet themselves that they could make something worse.  (They almost succeeded, but not quite.  Three members of the cast can act.)

It’s quicker to mention what went right with Rollerball than it is to enumerate its faults.  What went right is this: Jean Reno, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, LL Cool J, and several hundred blameless professionals whose names scroll by at the end without your paying attention all got paid as compensation for the permanent embarrassment of having this movie on their resumes.  Aside from that general act of job creation, like the man told Conan, “Rollerball sucked!”

As for how it sucked, here’s an extremely abbreviated list of selected lowlights in no particular order:

Rumor has it that producers originally wanted Keanu Reeves for the lead, but instead, they got Chris Klein, who bears a vague resemblance to Reeves, assuming that Reeves got airbrushed and fed a diet of nothing but white bread and had all of his acting talent surgically removed.  Klein is just plain awful to watch, worse to listen to, and absolutely impossible to buy as a charismatic hero of any kind, much less one capable of physically kicking ass in a sport designed to kill people.

And speaking of that sport.  The 1975 take on Rollerball was iffy in the story department, but it did a superb job of presenting the fictional sport of Rollerball (which the cast and crew had refined into a more coherent game for the film), giving the audience something exciting to watch that was completely believable as a major spectator event.  What this Rollerball gives the audience is a complete mess, under the apparent theory that lots of noise and an infinite number of camera cuts are a substitute for a game that a reasonable human being could be expected to follow.  The track has been redesigned so that it is literally impossible to get an unobstructed view of more than a quarter of it from any position, and as far as the changes made to the rules… they’re “Russian and complicated.”  Back in 1975, the game was fun to watch and saved the rest of the movie; here, the game is actively headache inducing and feels like incoherent punishment.

But even the horribly directed and haphazardly edited game sequences don’t feel as incoherently out of place as the inexplicable night vision sequence that the audience is subjected to roughly two thirds of the way in.  One moment, you’re watching a normal chase scene, and then suddenly, it all goes green for the next three minutes.  Did the crew forget the floodlights back at the hotel?  Were they just drunk?  Who knows?  Whatever the reason, this “cutesy” visual choice yanks the audience right out of the picture, and absolutely destroys anything that Rollerball might have still had going for it at that point.

Not that it had much.  Take our premise, for example.  The notion that Petrovich can’t get a North American cable deal for a sports league that obviously rakes in many millions of dollars and sells out arenas every place it goes – in other words, the heart of our “plot” – is ridiculous.  Even in 2000, card games were a spectator sport on cable.  Anyone with a trained poodle and a sock puppet was being offered a slot on some network or other.  If Petrovich can’t get a cable deal for a sport as big as we’re led to believe Rollerball is in 2005, even one based out of the ass end of Asia, then his marketing department must be made up entirely of particularly dim-witted inflatable sheep.  (I add the adjectives because I’m pretty sure that a normal inflatable sheep could get him the deal.)

Then again, that fictional marketing department is a product of Rollerball’s script.  That same script also happens to be responsible for a scene wherein Jean Reno calls LL Cool J his “homey.”  I’m not sure which actor I felt more embarrassed for at that point.

Not that anyone behind the camera was feeling any shame.  For a remake of a movie that was explicitly against the commercial and corporate mentality, Rollerball sells out at every opportunity.  Its “oh this all bad” message rings hollow, and when the announcer played by Paul Heyman – yes, the front man for Extreme Championship Wrestling – calls for it all to stop, it plays just as insincerely as when Jerry “the King” Lawler yells “Stop the damn match!” at one of Vince McMahon’s staged gigs.  (McMahon’s son and a bunch of WWE wrestlers also make cameos here; oh, yeah, this is a real sincere social commentary.)  Far from damning the glitz as its dialogue pretends to, Rollerball celebrates it.

There’s so much more to pick apart here, but I think you get the point by now.  Rollerball is, without question, the worst movie on the resume of anyone involved, and John McTiernan has gone a long way down since his glory days in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  That he actually ended up getting convicted of a Federal crime as a result of wiretapping activity relating to this movie (he lied to prosecutors about arranging to have one of his fellow producers “investigated”) makes the whole sorry mess that much sadder.

 Faced with the garbage that their $70,000,000 had bought them, the producers tried to decide how best to recoup their investment by somehow broadening the appeal of Rollerball.  Adding to an already gigantic mound of stupidity, they decided that the best thing to do was edit out a Rebecca Romijn-Stamos nude scene.  I don’t mean that they cut the scene out altogether (though they did cut nude scenes involving other characters); I mean they very, very obviously digitally “airbrushed” black “steam” over her naughty bits.  (They might as well have just pasted on black bars marked “CENSORED”; it looked so bad.)  Even a brief glimpse of a full frontal shot of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos would have been enough to get a lot of people to forgive this movie’s sins; instead, for the sake of a worthless PG-13 rating that does not generate the extra viewership that Hollywood believes it does for this kind of film, they drove yet another nail into Rollerball’s coffin.  I remember looking at discussion boards the day after the movie was finally released, and the vitriol thrown over this particular move was especially vicious.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I suggest that this moronic bit of censorship cost the studio a couple million.  Everyone brought it up.

On the plus side, someone must have been paying attention, because the home video release restores the previous cut, including not only that quick shot of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, but also some toplessness from some of Petrovich’s luscious entourage.  Trust me, folks, if you’re going to sit through Rollerball, it helps.

Not that I’m suggesting that most of you sit through it, mind.  There are only two reasons to subject yourself to the pain that is Rollerball.  One is if you’re a film student and you want to see an example of how not to make a big budget action movie.  The other is if you’re the sort of person who takes a declaration of “that’s some of the worst crap out there” as a personal challenge and who therefore just has to experience the crap for yourself.  If the latter is you, I do understand your sickness (I have it myself), but I strongly suggest that you have plenty of alcohol handy before you press “play.”  You will need it.

Bottom line, unless you are deliberately looking to subject yourself to badly directed, horrendously edited, barely coherent trash, there is just no reason to watch Rollerball.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

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