Rollerball Review

Due to the high number of remakes Hollywood seems to be churning out at the moment, it’s becoming a very depressing and repetitive task comparing these new versions to their usually superior earlier incarnations. So I wanted to make an effort to judge a remake afresh, as if I’d never seen the original. In a strange way this version of Rollerball can be viewed like that even having seen the original, as the story is radically different from the 1975 Norman Jewison / James Caan film. Both feature a game called Rollerball that is a violent sport with “players” on skates or motorcycles trying to score points with a big steel ball. In both the game is made more violent as the story progresses, and both feature a main character called Jonathan. But that’s it; otherwise everything is very, very different. The original version was set in a future society where corporations rule and war has been eliminated. Rollerball was the outlet of violence for the masses, and to show that the individual is not more important than the corporation, no player was allowed to become a star. But when a star actually emerges in Jonathan E, the owners of the game try to retire him, and when he doesn’t, they change the rules so that it becomes so violent he will perish. Or so they think…

Fast-forward to this version and everything is different. No longer set in a future society, this one is set around about now (2005 to be exact). Rollerball is still a violent sport on skates and motorcycles, but it’s been relocated to former Soviet states like Kazakhstan. Now it’s an ultra-violent sport just to pull in the global TV viewers, advertisers and gambling. Players are recruited from all over the world, including Americans Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein) and Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J) along with the mysterious Aurora (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). When team owner Petrovich (Jean Reno) realises that upping the violence also ups the ratings and so the profits, he sets about changing the rules and bribing players to be as violent as possible, at any cost. When Cross and Ridley find out they try to leave, but it may not be that easy to just walk away.

So in a way this seems like a remake that could be more interesting than others as it attempts to build a whole new story rather than just rehashing old ground. Alas it doesn’t work out that way. The framework for an interesting story is certainly there, changing the focus completely from a future society to a more current TV culture that is driven by the desire to see more and more outrageous violence in the name of sport. The problem is that the finished product in no way lives up to any of these possibilities. Even if the story fails to come together properly, with Die Hard and Predator director John McTiernan in charge you would at least expect strong and well-executed action sequences. However, with plenty of scope for action in the Rollerball games the excitement factor just isn’t there, with everything just plain confusing rather than focused. A lot of the problem is the design of the new Rollerball arenas. The original film had a large well-defined playing area and although the action was frenetic, you could tell what was going on. Here the playing area is tiny, with tunnels and ramps added which only serves to make things unnecessarily complicated. Skaters and bikers fly all over the place and even they don’t appear to know what is happening, so it gives very little chance to the viewer. Beyond that though, the editing of these scenes is frankly appalling. McTiernan has decided to do the dreaded quick-jump editing style, with frames intentionally dropped during sequences, that only serves to make the viewer queasy and think that their DVD player is malfunctioning. McTiernan might possibly be forgiven slightly for some of this, as much of it may not have been in the original cut. This was yet another film that did very poorly in test screenings and advance viewings so was hastily re-edited; scenes of nudity and some of the violence were trimmed to lower the rating and get the kids in. It didn’t work, flopping very badly at the box office. But what has happened to John McTiernan is difficult to fathom. Responsible for top-rate action movies of the past, he now seems to be on a one-man mission to remake Norman Jewison’s back catalogue, this movie following his remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

As for the casting, this is a very hit-and-miss affair. The primary problem is Chris Klein as the star player. Calling both lead characters from the films Jonathan inevitably leads to comparisons. James Caan’s Jonathan E was a tough man’s man and totally believable as the star of a violent game. Chris Klein? He's more of a wimp’s wimp, stretching believability well past breaking point that he could become the star of this game. Jean Reno hams it up for all it’s worth as the evil boss Petrovich; only Rebecca Romijn-Stamos comes out with any real credit, giving a good deal of gothic weirdness to her character Aurora.

Other plusses include some imaginative camerawork away from the Rollerball sequences, notably the night chase filmed in infrared night-vision goggle style, even though this goes on way too long and serves no real directorial angle (no one is actually looking at them through night-vision goggles) so ultimately it’s a gimmick. Additionally Eric Serra’s soundtrack gives everything a strong Eastern European feel.

Even though I slipped up a couple of times and did actually compare this to the original, ultimately the two are so different that it’s hardly worth it. To have avoided these unnecessary comparisons with the James Caan film they may as well have redesigned the game and called it – and the film - something else; no one would probably have guessed the connection. As a standalone picture this unfortunately has little to recommend it. Confused and poorly edited action sequences coupled with a new story that had potential that was never developed makes this a mess of a movie that neither particularly entertains or excites as it should. Unless you’re keen to see a film that has as its biggest selling point a 5 second cameo appearance by Slipknot, then I really wouldn’t bother.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic picture is a very good transfer. The Rollerball arenas are awash with lots of primary colours, and these all look impressive here. Bear in mind that there are many scenes in the film where picture quality becomes difficult to judge, when the picture is supposed to be lower quality television broadcasts. And yes, the scene that appears to be shot through night-vision goggles is meant to look like that…

On the flip of the double-sided disc is a 4x3 pan-and-scan version of the movie. Presumably only for Americans who still like their televisions very big and very square, this is obviously a no-go area.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track provides solid and clear sound, with plenty of directional effects. Whether it’s pushing out the dialogue, the noisy sound effects or the pounding soundtrack, this is never less than excellent quality. There’s no DTS track, but this DD track more than holds its own.

There are two things to note before looking at the extras. First, the version of the movie on this disc restores some of the violence and nudity that was cut from the US theatrical version. Secondly, director John McTiernan has no involvement whatsoever with any of the supplemental material on the disc.

Putting the disc in the pan-and-scan side gives a rental disc-like experience, ie no extras at all. On the other widescreen side there are a number of extras, though labelling it up as a “Special Edition” is pushing things somewhat. These extras are:

The featurette is called Future Sport: The Stunts of Rollerball and runs for about 20 minutes. It’s promo stuff, but slightly better than average, as plenty of ground is covered, including training for the actors – Chris Klein on skates, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos on the motorcycle (having never ridden before this movie). Also looked at are the stunt work, the visual effects (with “before” and “after” comparison shots) and the participation of Extreme Sports X-Gamers as extras in the teams. All in all a quite watchable piece.

What’s called ”The Horseman” Commentary is in fact a track featuring actors Chris Klein, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and LL Cool J. Although they talk about similar things, it’s clear that Klein and Romijn-Stamos were recorded together, with LL Cool J separate and edited in later. As it’s actors here don’t expect any technical information, just some recollections of what sounded like a pretty tough shoot. Klein and Romijn-Stamos are lively and entertaining and worth listening to. LL Cool J, on the other hand, is - with a very few exceptions - totally unnecessary here. Coming over as a complete parody of a rap artist, his comments are mostly stupid and pointless - “Hey Ladies and Gentlemen, Rollerball rocks!” for example – and he knocks his Mr Cool image for six by giggling during a scene featuring topless women.

The Rollerball Yearbook is a screen-based system that takes you through the players, the teams, the equipment, and the rules of Rollerball. In some sections there are “highlight reels” that feature relevant video, but it is just snippets from the movie, no new material is here. It’s a nice idea and it’s well put together, but ultimately it’s a little lightweight.

The music video features Rob Zombie performing Never Gonna Stop. A video made for the movie, but it looks like someone told him it was a Clockwork Orange remake. Presented in full screen and Dolby Surround sound.

Finally, we have four trailers. The theatrical trailer and teaser trailer are both presented in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Surround sound. Interestingly, the teaser trailer makes this remake look like its story is identical to the original film. There are also two TV show trailers, one for Stargate SG-1 (one of those terrible ones that I’m always warning you off on my SG-1 disc reviews) and one for new SF show Jeremiah.

There are no ROM extras to be found here.

I tried to avoid too many direct comparisons with the original movie here and look at this film afresh, especially as it’s a very different story. Ultimately however, this is a poor movie that’s been edited, re-edited and re-edited again until it’s a total mess. The disc isn’t bad, but hardly warrants being called a “Special Edition”. Not recommended.

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