Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 25, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (2002)

10. Rollerball

I was dreading this one. The original “Rollerball” is a true cult classic, the definitive death sport movie, a film that is equally self-serious and campy. I love that movie. The remake of “Rollerball” from 2002 is an entirely different beast. Like seemingly everything John McTiernan made since the early nineties, production was troubled. Following test screenings, the film was re-cut and many scenes were re-shot. Filmed as an R-rated movie, it was hastily re-edited for a PG-13 rating, awkwardly cutting out the blood and nudity. Originally slotted for a summer release date in 2001, “Rollerball” was shipped off to the frozen month of next February. Among heinous reviews, it naturally bombed. Unlike some of McTiernan’s other failures, no reevaluation of “Rollerball” is forthcoming. This is a startlingly bad movie, an epic fiasco.

Like the original “Rollerball,” the remake follows an athlete named Jonathan. In the near future of 2005, a new extreme sport is sweeping the world. Rollerball, a goal keeping game played on rollerblades and motorcycles, has become hugely popular overseas. Jonathan, an extreme sports junkie, is talked into joining a Rollerball league by his friend, Ridley. Both are in over their heads. Not only is the game violent, the managers are blood-thirsty and psychotic. Soon, Jonathan and his Russian love interest Aurora are targeted for extermination by the people who control the money.

The worst kind of remakes miss the points of the originals. “Rollerball” doesn’t just miss the point of the original, it seems to be entirely beyond grasping the point. Say what you will about 1975’s “Rollerball,” a very flawed film, but it was ambitious. Multiple heady themes were examined within the movie. Satire of sports mania, satire of corporate ownership, how societies control the masses, the worth of a single man, the cost of violence, even some environment issues were bouncing around inside Norman Jewison’s original. The remake dismisses all of these issues. There are no deeper thoughts in the movie’s head. “Shallow” doesn’t due it justice. “Stupefyingly brainless” is more accurate.

Before 1975’s “Rollerball” set out to address any bigger ideas, it made sure the titular sport was easy to follow and exciting to watch. The remake needlessly junks up the game. The simple ring-shaped rink is transformed into a figure eight. This shape creates narrow corridors, which quickly causes the players to bottle-neck. Multiple ramps that serve no practical purposes are added. The motorcycles now have huge flags trailing behind them, which you’d think would be a serious issue in a game like this. The goals are elevated into the air. They’re only reachable by leaping into the “rabbit holes,” glass tubes built above the rink. In an extremely stupid touch, the goals explode into sparks when a ball is successfully thrown into them. That this version of Rollerball could ever become popular seems impossible. The game is difficult to follow and complicated for no clear reason.

One of the original’s strength was the sci-fi dystopia it presented. As ridiculous as it was on the surface, the movie sold the world with conviction. The viewer believed such a society could exist. Since the remake is completely disinterested in exploring any sociological ideas, the story is moved into nearly the present day. There are some very minor, inconsistent sci-fi concepts at play. The rest of the world seems to be falling into disarray. Advanced satellite technology allows for “instant global ratings,” an improbable concept. The fashion is cartoonish, suggesting some future climate. Yet the United States seems entirely the same, unaffected by the crumbling world around it. The cars and vehicles are modern. The contrast of sci-fi elements against an otherwise normal society confuses the viewer. Nobody sat down and figured out how any of this would be possible.

Let’s talk some more about those costumes. In Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball,” the players wore football helmets, shoulder pads, spiked gauntlets, and protective gear on their arms and legs. The gloves and skates aside, they were basically dressed like football players. The players in the remake are dressed like characters from a Saturday morning cartoon show. A bad one. Here’s some of the shit the players wear: A tutu. A cone around the neck. Complex body armor that covers most of the body. Elaborate masks that look like a statue’s face, an animal head, or a knight’s helmet. One player wears a large mask shaped like a jester’s head. Part of his get-up includes a puppet jester on his shoulder, to mock opposing players with. None of the above is practical sports wear. The costumes in “Rollerball” make the get-ups of professional wrestlers seem subtle and restrained.

In the past, even John McTiernan’s weakest films usually had some cool action or a decently directed visual moment. I’m not sure if McTiernan or the re-editing is to blame but the action in “Rollerball” is hysterically bad. The sequences set inside the rollerball rink are chaotically edited, to the point of incoherence. That’s not even the worst part. Any time somebody is struck in this movie, they go flying through the air. At least six times, a player is tossed head-over-heels from even the weakest of blows. At one point, one of the spinning victims is then hit a second time as they’re spinning. It looks absurd and got a huge laugh out of me every time.

Out of the myriad of bad decisions made during the production of “Rollerball,” one mistake stands above all the hours. The parvum opus of poor choices appears about an hour into the film. Certain their boss is going to kill them, Jonathan and Ridley make a night time escape across the desert. The entire sequence is shot in night vision. The scene is not short, running for about ten minutes. For all that time, we see the characters in sickly green and glowing yellow. This does not make any sense. Nobody is wearing night vision goggles nor are the events being observed through specialized cameras. This aspect alone is laughable but “Rollerball” is not done topping itself in ridiculousness. An airplane – I don’t remember where the airplane came from – flies through a wire fence. As the plane crashes through, a cartoony “boing!” noise is heard. A minute later, the movie repeats the same goofy sound effect. Is “Rollerball” pulling my chain? Is it suppose to be funny? Or is the film simply that badly made?

The acting in “Rollerball” is laughably bad. To be fair to the cast, it’s not like they had much of a script to work with. On the other hand, at least two of the main characters are played by actors with questionable resumes. 2002’s “Rollerball” was released during the brief period when Hollywood was trying to make Chris Klein happen. Klein looks like an overgrown boy. He never delivers any of his lines with conviction or self-assurances. A cocksure smile is the best he has to offer. LL Cool J, a dubious thespian even on a good day, plays Ridley. The rapper’s attempts at serious emoting are laughable. Mr. Cool J seems totally out of his element. Rebecca Romijn, still sporting a “Stamos” at the time, is hassled with a ridiculous semi-Russian accent. Of the major players, she probably gives the best performance. In other words, her acting is broad and laughable.

Crappy movies like this have, in the past, have provided talented actors a chance to overact in bad guy roles. I had hoped we get a hammy, enjoyably over-the-top performance out of Jean Reno in this. No such luck. Reno twists his natural French accent into something unrecognizable. His facial make-up extends his eyebrows, making him look like Ming the Merciless. Reno overacts, for sure, but there’s no joy in it. If “Rollerball” has any element of satire, it deals with the villain’s plot. The film seems to be taking target at sports managers that do not care for their players’ welfare. If this was intentional at all, the attempt at commentary is as facile as everything else about the film.

John McTiernan’s movies usually have pretty good soundtracks. Alan Silvestri’s legendary “Predator” score, Michael Kamen’s incorporation of “Ode to Joy” in “Die Hard,” Bill Conti’s smooth jazz orchestrations in “The Thomas Crown Affair:” All of its good stuff. Since “Rollerball” seeks to sully McTiernan’s good name in every way, it’s soundtrack is also terrible. “Intrusive’ doesn’t properly describe the use of music. Obnoxious Nu Metal blares during practically every minute of the thankfully short run time. Even when the likes of P.O.D. or Hardknox aren’t yelling on the soundtrack, a band accompanies every Rollerball game. At one point, a female performer lip-syncs to Rob Zombie. At another point, Slipknot – You remember that shitty Korn knock-off with the Halloween masks? – actually appear in the film. All I can assume is that “Rollerball” was desperate to appeal to mall-dwelling teens with indiscriminate taste. Many of these bands were popular with the assholes I went to middle school with.

Truthfully, there’s so much wrong with “Rollerball” that many staggering elements are included seemingly for the hell of it. During the first game, a Faulknerian man-child plays on Klein’s Rollerball team. His death is what signals the heroes that something is afoot. I seriously doubt someone with developmental disabilities would be allowed to play in a contact sport, much less one as brutal as Rollerball. An obnoxious ring announcer yells into a microphone during every game. He’s played by Paul Heyman, a former pro-wrestler. His bravado just adds another loud, obnoxious aspect to this misbegotten movie. At various points, the film cuts to footage from Bollywood musicals or Japanese variety shows. It’s senseless.

“Rollerball” is astonishingly bad. It’s preposterously bad. The remake of “Rollerball” is a film so incredibly miscalculated, you can hardly believe it’s real. “Rollerball” is so bad, its director went to jail as a result of the film. Movies are hard to make. Many people, lots of money and lots of time are necessary to make a movie. Hundreds of people worked on 2002’s “Rollerball.” The final product suggest that they all made horrible mistakes. That a major studio could release something this poorly assembled is baffling. I could go on but it’ll be just more ranting. John McTiernan’s “Rollerball” may be the worst big budget movie I’ve ever seen. [Grade: F]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

Saw it in theatres. Glad it got an F.