Rollerball - 1975
Director(s): Norman Jewison
Writer(s): William Harrison (screenplay and novel)
Cinematography by: Douglas Slocombe
Editor(s): Antony Gibbs
Cast: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn and Ralph Richardson
Back in 2002, I watched a film by the name of Rollerball, led by the black hole of charisma, Chris Klein, and was directed by John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard). Even 14-year-old me knew that he was watching an incoherent mess of a film, that had nothing going for it outside of weird leather uniforms and a brash metal score to "elevate" the "cool" rollerblade sequences. Scrolling through Prime looking for something to watch with the wife, we stumbled upon a helmet-clad James Caan with the same title underneath - I had no clue that 2002's was a remake, so out of morbid curiosity. And while I can say it is better than the remake (not a high bar), I was a bit bored by the film. Let's talk about it.
The story follows Jonathan (Caan), the captain, and star player of the Houston Rollerball team. Rollerball, filled with skate, bikes and spiked leather gloves, is the only major sport played throughout the world in this future dystopian society controlled by the "Corporation." Houston is the defending champs, and Jonathan is seen as the best player in the world, with his fame growing immensely after each match. The executives of the Corporation fear he is becoming more prominent than the game and has decided that he should retire and let other players take the light. Jonathan refuses to retire and sets out to uncover why he is being forced out of the sport, and nothing comes out of his quest.
William Harrison's script has a lot of things to appreciate, mainly the world building laid out for the audience through organic situations, and not via unnatural dialogue (for the most part). The use of the unknown drug to sedate the people, the executives, the fascination with the violence and the sport, all make it easier for the audience to distinguish their world from ours. I enjoy how they dropped you in during the setup and execution of a rollerball match, and you are tying the pieces together as you go along. That is as far as I'll go in the praising of this script, as I found the dialogue repetitive and uninspired. The mystery or "hook" of why/who/when he was being "retired" never paid off, and there are moments in the film that baffled me as to what was the purpose since it doesn't push the story forward or adds to the character development. I was bored.
The rollerblading sequences are shot well, and the stunt work where impressive, especially for the time, but they do drag a bit almost playing out in real time. James Caan is good, but a constant dialogue ties him down, "I am being forced to retire," and a non-existent arch dilutes his performance. John Houseman, as the chairman of the team, goes from creepy to menacing with ease and is by far the best aspect of the film. The rest of the cast is there, and they got a paycheck, and that is awesome.
Rollerball is colorful, violent, and bold with its smart social commentary injected throughout - but it leaves so much meat on the bones that you walk away unsatisfied with the experience. The pacing, the dialogue, and the ultimate resolution of the conflicts are detriments that weigh-down my view on the film, and the main reasons of me probably never revisiting it in the future.
Rollerball is a Streamer!
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