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"ROLLERBALL"
(2002) (Chris Klein, Jean Reno) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Adventure: The star of a violent sport of the future tries to figure out what to do when he discovers that various "accidents" have been purposefully created to generate higher TV ratings.
PLOT:
It's the year 2005 and Rollerball, which is part roller derby and part hockey with players on motorcycles - is the sport of choice in Asia. Its most popular player is American Jonathan Cross (CHRIS KLEIN) who was recruited by his friend and fellow teammate Marcus Ridley (LL COOL J).

After only four months with the team, he's already the favorite of owner Alexi Petrovich (JEAN RENO) and his assistant Sanjay (NAVEEN ANDREWS), and is having an affair with teammate Aurora (REBECCA ROMIJN-STAMOS) on the side.

Things are going fine until Jonathan realizes that an injury to another teammate that occurred on the track was no accident, and reports it to Alexi. The owner vows to look into the matter, but the higher TV ratings it brought change his perception of the game. From that point on, Jonathan realizes he's just a pawn in the sport and does what he can to break free from the system.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Although historians and those involved in the industries could probably dispute this notion, it seems that sports and TV programming of the past were at least as concerned - and possibly more so - with athleticism/competition and entertainment respectively as they were with the almighty, bottom-line dollar. Perhaps that's the effect of nostalgia, but at some point in the past that emphasis seemingly changed as the perpetual incorporation of the world took place.

One movie that took note of just that was Norman Jewison's "Rollerball," a 1975 film starring James Caan and John Houseman that focused on a futuristic sport run by corporations (like everything else in 2018) where individualism was a big no-no. Much like other sci-fi films of that era, it was all about man vs. the system.

In the film - that had some decent Rollerball action on the track but slow and laborious drama off it - Caan's veteran player breaks the rules by becoming too popular and refusing to retire. In doing so, he brings some humanity back into the world.

Nowadays, of course, corporations also run the movie business, and perhaps that production by committee approach to moviemaking is the source of all that's wrong with the new remake of the original film. Loosely based on the original plot from writer William Harrison's short story, "Roller Ball Murders," the film was supposed to be MGM's tent-pole attraction of summer 2001, with accomplished director John McTiernan ("The Thomas Crown Affair," "Die Hard") at the helm and a story and cast geared for a younger and thus potentially more lucrative audience than the original, adult-oriented picture.

Yet, someone wasn't pleased with the finished product and so the release date was repeatedly pushed back. Then someone decided that the film's racier and more violent material should be excised to drop the original R rating down to a more kid-friendly PG-13.

That's usually never a good thing and the resultant film that's now finally being released is proof positive of that. With the camera lens flares (so prominently seen in "Die Hard") being about the only sign that McTiernan worked on the project, the film is a jumbled mess. The editing is atrocious (no doubt due in part to the subsequent hack job of cutting out material), the dialogue is often awful, the plot is trite at best and the hyper-kinetic action scenes aren't effective.

In fact, the loud and obnoxious rock music that plays during much of it - yes, there's even a hard rock band present in the matches - is seemingly present to overwhelm you to the point that you don't notice the film's deficiencies. Unfortunately for those involved, there's not enough such music in the world to cover up this film's problems that are plentiful in number.

The first lies mainly with the script. Since the original film wasn't anything special and there were no worries about treading on sacred cinematic material, screenwriters Larry Ferguson ("Alien 3," "The Hunt For Red October") and John Pogue ("The Skulls," "U.S. Marshals") could have taken the material and run with it, creating a fascinating, fabulous and highly entertaining, cautionary yarn.

To say they didn't is an understatement, as the changes they've made - namely having the sport apparently only played in parts of Eurasia and making the protagonist a young rookie rather than a seasoned veteran - don't make the story any better.

Character motivation and plot elements aren't explained very well or even at all. For example, we never know why the sport is so popular or how its TV ratings suddenly rise in the middle of the game in response to some corporate-induced mayhem (are viewers calling their mothers and telling them to watch?).

Nor do we get a sense of what has makes rookie Jonathan Cross - played by Chris Klein ("Election," the "American Pie" films) in far more of a Keanu Reeves fashion than anything resembling Mr. Caan even from a quarter century ago - so good at the sport and popular with the fans.

Especially when compared to the "new guy finds established corruption" plot of the brilliant Tom Cruise film, "The Firm," that same element here is far too contrived and hackneyed to be anywhere as effective and/or engaging. That's no doubt amplified by the one-dimensional villains - headed by the usually superb Jean Reno ("Just Visiting," "Mission: Impossible") - who are far too obvious in their villainy, and the fact that we don't feel the menace or worry about the good guys' well-being.

It's never explained why the characters simply can't quit - beyond a ridiculous, middle of the night chase sequence that's been shot as if filmed with those greenish night vision scopes - as the stakes are never presented in a credible fashion.

Much like the first film, the attraction and highlights are supposed to be the Rollerball matches that combine roller derby, hockey, lacrosse and motorbike racing into a violent spectacle. Unfortunately, and despite the filmmakers modifying the game, gear and track layout from the original, little here is gripping, absorbing or entertaining, particularly due to the rapid fire delivery of footage and edits that prevent the viewer from following or getting into the game action.

Beyond Klein and Reno who are both flat and wrong for their parts, neither LL Cool J ("Kingdom Come," "Any Given Friday") nor Rebecca Romijn-Stamos ("X-Men," "Dirty Work") can do anything with their poorly drawn characters, with the rest of the roles simply blending together into an anonymous whole.

Unlike Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday" that mixed volatile corporate politics with incredibly intense gridiron action, this film fails in delivering either, and simply is quite bad in most every way imaginable. The only good thing is that we probably won't have to sit through "Rollerball 2." This film rates as a 2 out of 10.




Reviewed February 8, 2002 / Posted February 8, 2002


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