Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Friday, September 20, 2013

Rollerball (1975) and Rollerball (2002)

Remember when you were a kid and you saw a commercial or advertisement in the newspaper for a movie that piqued your interest and you wanted to see it so badly and when you asked your parents, they gave you a resounding, "No!"?  That was me in 1975.  The two films that I wanted to see more than anything in the world were JAWS and ROLLERBALL. One was about a giant man eating shark terrorizing Martha's Vineyard. The other film was about a violent, futuristic sport that combined roller derby, football, and motocross. Looking back at my parents decision, I applaud them for their parental guidance. Today, most kids (mine included) have probably seen a bloody or violent film far worse than JAWS or ROLLERBALL. How times have changed. But oh, how it pained me to know it was playing in a movie theater near me and I was forbidden to see either film.

What's funny is that I had already seen a PG film a few years earlier when my grandmother took me to see THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972). How that got past my parents I'll never know (and the subject of a future CRAZYFILMGUY blog).  My mother must have had inside information about JAWS and ROLLERBALL (she probably read the reviews). The fact that I wanted to see films that didn't involve animated talking mice when I was 11 makes me proud. Even at an early age, I was reaching out to see different, interesting films. ROLLERBALL was R rated which also had something to do with my mother's decision. I did have a friend named John in fourth grade whose parents would let him see everything. I would have to go to John like a lost explorer seeking Buddha and have him describe the entire film back to me since I was not allowed to see it. John recounted JAWS to me as well as THE EIGER SANCTION and MARATHON MAN (two more films my parents wouldn't let me see) during lunch and recess.

But I don't think John ever saw ROLLERBALL (1975).  In fact, I don't know anyone who saw ROLLERBALL either in grade school, high school, college, or as an adult. Until I watched ROLLERBALL a few months ago, I still had never watched it.  The thrill of watching it as a kid had dissipated as girls and homework and later marriage and having kids took over. It was only seeing it advertised on MGM's Movie Channel recently did it rekindle that thrill to watch it when I was in fourth grade.  There's just something visceral about these athletes roller skating on a oval track with motorcycles, wearing thick gloves with spikes on them, bashing each other's bodies to try and put a steel ball into a magnetic goal.  If only ROLLERBALL had been made by a director with a better feel for action and visuals.  Instead, ROLLERBALL was made by director Norman Jewison.

Now Jewison is not a bad director having made the Academy Award winning IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) and the critically praised MOONSTRUCK (1987). He brought two popular Broadway musicals to the screen: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973). But ROLLERBALL just seems out of his league.  He probably wanted to direct something different after musicals and socially responsible dramas. If you've seen photographs of Norman Jewison, he's a distinguished, respectable looking man with white hair and glasses. He could be a doctor or accountant.  He's just not a sexy director like Kubrick or Coppola or DePalma. Yet Jewison worked with some of the most testosterone filled actors during his career: Steve McQueen (THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR), Al Pacino (AND JUSTICE FOR ALL), and in ROLLERBALL, James Caan.

It is clear from the first frame of ROLLERBALL that director Jewison is inspired by Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1972). The violence at times is in super slow motion. Jewison even uses classic music, Bach's Toccata in D Fugue, played on an organ just as Kubrick used Beethoven and Rossini for his futuristic tale. But Jewison is no Kubrick. Although ROLLERBALL has some interesting ideas from an original screenplay by William Harrison based on his short story Roller Ball Murder and the action scenes are kinetic, the film lacks a visionary director to take it to another level.

ROLLERBALL takes place in a distant future, after the Computer Wars. Corporations are now running the world instead of countries.  There are no more wars. No poverty or sickness. Corporations make all the decisions. To replace war and give society something to watch, a violent, fast moving game called Rollerball entertains the masses and satisfies their lust for blood and violence. Rollerball has become the new gladiator sport.  Teams from around the world compete to become the world champion. Brutal injuries and even death are common place on the oval roller rink in the world of Rollerball.

The film opens with the Rollerball team from Houston led by the Michael Jordan of Rollerball Jonathan E (James Caan) squaring off against the team from Madrid. The Houston team is owned by the Energy Corporation, a group of businessmen in gray suits who appear to run not only the Rollerball league but the world along with other corporations. The executive in charge is Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman). Houston defeats Madrid. Bartholomew and the suits praise Jonathan E and the team for their victory.  But all is not well at the Energy Corporation. 

Jonathan E is becoming too big a star, too much of an individual.  As Bartholomew reminds Jonathan, "No player is greater than the game itself." Jonathan is called into the gleaming corporate headquarters of the Energy Corporation. Bartholomew tells Jonathan that the executives wants Jonathan to retire. A big television special is being prepared to announce Jonathan's retirement after 10 years in the Rollerball rink. But Jonathan doesn't take the request well. The Energy Corporation has already taken away his wife Ella (Maud Adams) replacing her with different girlfriends (Barbara  Hensley and Barbara Trentham). But Jonathan wants to learn more about the past, how the Energy Corporation came into control after the Computer Wars. Jonathan refuses to retire.

Houston makes it to the semi-finals and travels to the Far East to play against Tokyo, a Rollerball team that incorporates (what else) karate and judo tactics.  The Corporation releases new rules for the semi-final match.  Limited substitutions and no penalties.  The Tokyo team gangs up on Jonathan's best friend and teammate Moonpie (John Beck). Moonpie is beaten mercilessly by the Tokyo players and falls into a coma, brain dead. Houston wins the match.

Instead of returning to Houston with the team, Jonathan flies to Geneva where all the world's history and information is kept on computers.  Books are no longer needed or available. Jonathan meets the Librarian (Ralph Richardson) to find answers about the Computer Wars and the Energy Corporation. The Librarian is a bit befuddled when Jonathan arrives as a computer glitch has misplaced all information about the 13th century. The Librarian asks the main computer Zero to answer Jonathan's questions but the computer just blinks silently (another nod by Jewison to HAL the Computer in Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY).

Jonathan returns to Houston.  The Corporation brings back Jonathan's wife Ella who pleads for Jonathan to quit Rollerball. She warns him the conglomerate is out to defeat him.  Houston plays New York in the finals and this time, there are no substitutions and no penalties.  The winner is to be the last man standing. It's Jonathan E versus the gray suits behind the glass corporate suites.

The world of ROLLERBALL both in the rink and the outside world is nicely rendered by writer Harrison and director Jewison. Most of the film is set in a futuristic Houston but the filmmakers make a clever choice by filming in Germany, using unfamiliar glass skyscrapers and domed buildings from Munich, Germany to represent Houston. It give the locale an unsettling, foreign look. It's not an America we're familiar with. Companies have replaced countries, making decisions on a global basis for the common good of all. Houston, Madrid, Tokyo, and New York are all run by executives hidden in their glass towers.

Corporate Executive Mr. Bartholomew is the voice for the filmmakers to explain this sterile, dystopian world and the origin of Rollerball. "The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort." Individualism has been stifled in this futuristic society. Jonathan doesn't even have a last name. Just a letter. He had a wife but the Corporation took her away. Even sex appears to be banished or limited.  At the party to watch Jonathan's retirement special, men and women mingle in evening gowns and suits, a formal orgy but no one takes their clothes off. The guests just touch each other's hands, stare at each other, and take a pill that seems to make everyone mellow and obedient. Black, White, Asian -- they're all one in this strange, new world.

But Jonathan E is curious. He wants to be the best at Rollerball and he wants to know about the world that existed before the Energy Corporation. His non-conformist behavior has Bartholomew concerned. "...a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed." Even the National Anthem has lost its uniqueness. There are no individual anthems for each country. Just one Corporate Anthem that sounds like a funeral dirge or something from Communist Russia.

Besides borrowing some visuals and music ideas from Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, ROLLERBALL also seems inspired by the great Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451 (made into a movie by Francois Truffaut in 1966). In Fahrenheit 451, books are outlawed and if anyone is found in possession of a book, it is burned. In ROLLERBALL, Jonathan wants to read history books but books are now edited and transcribed for people, loaded into computers banks that few have access to. The Corporation controls what information is allowed to be digested by the masses.

ROLLERBALL is a nice edition to the Science Fiction genre of the early 1970's, films set in the not very distant future. Spaceships, alien creatures, and distant worlds were a distant memory in the first half of the decade. Maybe because of the budgets, studios were green lighting films that didn't have extravagant special effects. Instead, these Sci-Fi films wrestled with more earthly issues. Films like THE OMEGA MAN (1971) and SOYLENT GREEN (1973) dealt with plague and over population on Earth just a few years in future.  Even the PLANET OF THE APES series was earth bound as ape and humans co-mingled and battled each other.

ROLLERBALL fits into this group. ROLLERBALL'S world is ruled by global businessmen that want society to conform to their directives. They don't want individuals who will rock the boat. Jonathan's ranch, his horses, even his women are all provided by the Corporation. As Bartholomew says, "Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it's ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions." They want Jonathan E to be a good soldier. Their fear is that Jonathan will become bigger than the game. An individual who might have his own thoughts and ideas, that other people would follow. Maybe even try to overthrow the suits in their glass towers. But in 1977 George Lucas would release his space epic STAR WARS and usher in the return of spaceships, alien creatures, and fantastic distant worlds. Science Fiction never looked back.

James Caan is a good choice as Jonathan E, the king of  Rollerball.  Caan is athletic which the role demands with so much roller skating and physical action. People may forget that Caan played a real sports hero in the television drama BRIAN'S SONG (1971) portraying Chicago Bears football running back Brian Piccolo. John Beck as his sidekick Moonpie reminds me a bit of Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid with his matinee blond hair and moustache.  In fact, Jonathan E and Moonpie are in a way the futuristic version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the world of Rollerball. They are outsiders in this conformist society. All the other Rollerball players are just numbers but Jonathan and Moonpie are rebels, skating and maiming and winning to their own beat. Jonathan is laconic like a western hero and Caan plays him like a gunslinger. Jonathan's OK Corral is the final match against New York.

John Houseman is another nice casting decision as Mr. Bartholomew, the Energy Corporation executive. He's Rollerball's version of Dallas Cowboy owner Jimmy Jones. Bartholomew doesn't have an athletic bone in is body. He just follows the company line. Houseman's cool demeanor and business-like attitude as Bartholomew permeates the film. Houseman would gain greater fame as the commercial spokesman for Smith-Barney, a Wall Street brokerage with the slogan, "They earn money the old fashioned way. They earn it." The rest of the supporting cast is fine, nothing memorable. Moses Gunn plays Cleveland, Jonathan's personal trainer. Cleveland seems loyal to Jonathan but there's always an uneasy feeling that Cleveland is also spying on Jonathan. I found Pamela Hensley as one of Jonathan's girlfriends much more interesting than his wife played by Maud Adams (who would later be a Bond girl in OCTUPUSSY).

I knock director Jewison for his direction of ROLLERBALL but I'm not sure how much further another director could have taken the action scenes in 1975. But I would have liked to have seen a better visual explanation of the rules of the game. I think there could have been some more exciting stunts with the motorcycles and even some bloodier action. What a young Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese could have done with the ROLLERBALL action scenes and the way those two directors use a camera would have been interesting to see.  With all the recent remakes of films from the 70's like THE POSIDEON ADVENTURE or THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3, you would think someone would have wanted to remake a cult classic like ROLLERBALL right? 

Well someone did. John McTiernan, director of DIE HARD (1988) and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) remade ROLLERBALL in 2002 but cast younger actors, rap stars, and even a supermodel in the film. I give McTiernan and screenwriters Larry Ferguson and John Pogue credit for trying to go a different route with their ROLLERBALL remake. This ROLLERBALL tries to tap into the X-Games/skateboard culture while keeping some of the basic themes from the original.

Set slightly in the future (just 2005), Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein looking a lot like Keanu Reeves) is a former hockey player participating in extreme sports on the side.  Jonathan runs into an old friend Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J) who talks Cross into joining a traveling sports roadshow called Rollerball. Part ROAD WARRIOR, Part Cirque du Soleil, Rollerball is a fringe sport that is storming around the Russian breakaway states like Kazakstan. Team owner Alexis Petrovich (Jean Reno) and his smarmy hatchet man Sanjay (Naveen Andrews) broadcast the matches around the world, trying to increase their viewing audience and ratings. International teams battle one another and every team has its own play by play announcer.

The actual Rollerball game is pretty much the same except the teams wear intricate masks, helmets, and some even capes as they skate around a more elaborate track, trying to put the metal ball into an even higher goal. Motorcycles also play a role again. This ROLLERBALL is like a video game. Heavy metal bands perform just outside the stage. Jonathan proves himself to be one of the better players. Petrovich begins to manipulate the game, turning it into a bloodsport, more dangerous and violent.  As the game causes more injuries and spectacular crashes, global television ratings soar.

Jonathan secretly carries on a physical relationship with one of his female teammates, a  Russian woman named Aurora (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). A Mongolian team sabotages Aurora's motorcycle and Ridley rescues her from the burning bike, injuring himself in the process. Jonathan and Aurora bust Ridley out of the hospital and try to sneak across the border, fleeing Petrovich and his murderous game but their plan is foiled and Ridley is killed. Petrovich is close to closing a North American cable deal and he needs Cross to make it happen.

Jonathan and Petrovich play one another as Jonathan pretends to want to be a partner with Petrovich. Jonathan gets Aurora traded to another team to keep her out of harm's way. The owners of Rollerball led by Petrovich change the rules for the next match. No penalties and no fouls. The owners want players killed, all the better for ratings. Petrovich pays another team to kill Jonathan but he's not easy to kill. Jonathan turns the crowd against the violence and all the Rollerball teams unite to defeat their owners.

You have to hand it to director McTiernan for taking a novel approach to the original and not just copying Jewison's version. This newer ROLLERBALL seems less science fiction and more a critique on television ratings and creating fringe sports to market. I liked the different costumes and armor and masks the various teams wore. I was surprised the action scenes weren't more exciting. I always thought actor Chris Klein was a pretty dull actor but Klein is engaging as Jonathan Cross. LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos are credible as his teammates and friends.  But none of them has that star quality that James Caan brought to the original. Although this version isn't very Science Fiction like, that's what I miss. Rollerball is a game of the future. This ROLLERBALL is just a souped up roller derby/X-Games hybrid.

Sadly, the new ROLLERBALL goes to show how far director John McTiernan had fallen as one of the top directors in Hollywood. At one time, McTiernan was on top of the world as an action director with DIE HARD and RED OCTOBER. But then a couple of misfires with MEDICINE MAN and THE LAST ACTION HERO sent his career on the downslide. Currently, McTiernan is serving a 12 month prison sentence in South Dakota for wiretapping involving a former film partner.

Do yourself a favor and check out the original 1975 ROLLERBALL, an interesting Sci-Fi action film that transfers the ancient Romans bloody gladiator sports into the near future, where executive directors not emperors run the world and Rollerballers with spiked gloves not gladiators with swords fight to the death in front of a bloodthirsty audience.

1 comment:

  1. I found your blog, just surfing and searching about Rollerball, I don't know why but I tend to gravitate to this kind of Sci-Fi... I loved this movie and it was a great surprise to read about it in such a great and thinking way :)