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ROLLERBALL: SPECIAL EDITION

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Chris Klein, Jean Reno, LL Cool J, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Director: John McTiernan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Standard 1.33:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 100 Minutes
Release Date: June 18, 2002

“The man wants a show, Rid. I guess will have to give him one.”

Film **

Rollerball was a movie I was somewhat anticipating ever since seeing the teaser trailer. It looked like a hard-edged action pumped up adrenaline rush for the new millennium. Then I was let down when I learned that the movie was going to be put off from the summer of 2001 until February 2002 for one simple reason; to cut several scenes in order to lower the given R rating to a PG-13. When I finally saw the movie in the theaters, I had originally given it a one star average, officially labeling it as the first bad movie I had seen this year. When I heard that MGM was going to be releasing the intended R rated version to DVD, I decided to re-experience the movie for a second time. While a couple of flaws in the movie still remain, I can certainly say that Rollerball is no longer one of the worst films of the year. Then again, my new two star average isn’t saying much.

Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think back to the original 1975 version, which starred James Caan in the lead and was directed by Norman Jewison. That movie certainly wasn’t a masterpiece, as far as its technical level was concerned…mind you it was released two years prior to the technical and visual breakthrough, Star Wars…but at the heart of the film was a brutally honest underlying theme. It wasn’t so much a futuristic action picture but rather a film with something to say about what corporate sponsorship in professional sports could lead to in the future.

This new version, directed by thrill-a-minute action maestro John McTiernan has mostly substituted the notion of plot coherency and characterizations for wall to wall action sequences, about all of which are particularly well done. However, what does serve as the plot is somewhat hard to accept, even in a mindless action picture like this. 

Chris Klein stars as Jonathan Cross, an NHL hopeful who is convinced by an old high school chum named Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J), to ditch his so-called pathetic dream of hoping to play pro hockey and come with him overseas to Central Asia and sign on to the prestigious Rollerball league, where the action is more present, the women are just about everywhere, and the pay is, well, plentiful. Jonathan eventually considers, and he soon grows into the star player in the league. Pretty soon, he has it all; cars, money, endless partying, and occasional sex meetings with the female star player, Aurora (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos).

Though it appears as the dream profession for any ideal athlete, Jonathan begins to suspect foul play within the league ownership, when it appears that some players may be sitting ducks for brutal deaths in the game. He confronts the Rollerball owner, Petrovich (Jean Reno), about this possibility. Petrovich, however, seems not too interested in solving the problem, as it becomes clear that extreme violence, and the killing of any players, attracts high ratings. Once Jonathan, Marcus, and Aurora discover this revelation, they plot to rebel against their treacherous owners, and all hell breaks loose.

Rollerball suffers from two fundamental problems. One is a near ten-minute action sequence that is shot entirely in a night-vision image, where everything appears green and grainy. Why did McTiernan choose to shoot this sequence like this? It’s simply hard to swallow that the same director responsible for Die Hard and Die Hard With a Vengeance decided to shoot a scene that wouldn’t look any different if a first time operator of home video camera were shooting it.

The other big problem is Jean Reno’s overly cheesy performance, which is quite simply unbearable. You know you’re in trouble when the villain is shouting out in agony as his motive for mass mayhem “I’M THIS CLOSE TO A NORTH AMERICAN CABLE DEAL!” Reno is a terrific actor, and if you don’t believe me, see The Professional and Ronin. I even liked his performance in Godzilla, but his performance here seemed to me like a desperate gesture for a paycheck.

Regarding the supply of action, Rollerball has some impressive sequences. The opening scene has Jonathan engaging in a deadly suicide skateboard race down the streets of San Francisco. The numerous Rollerball game sequences are much engaging, with much bone crunching moments. The climatic game is indeed a jaw dropper, loaded with a good number of amazing physical stunts and blood splatter.

In the end, Rollerball has its good moments, and a couple of big bad moments. Overall, I was expecting more from the movie, especially since John McTiernan is the director. A good bit of the action scenes hold up well, but this simply pales in comparison to the director’s other films like Die Hard, Predator, The Hunt For Red October, and even The 13th Warrior.

Video ***1/2

For the most part, this is a superbly done video transfer from MGM, which is one DVD studio that has really evolved in the last year. The anamorphic video is in definite theatrical quality, with the image turning up a near-consistent sharpness and crispness. The outlandish settings of Rollerball, from the rollerball arenas to the colorful nightclubs look quite incredible. The presentation’s only flaw is precisely the same big flaw with the movie itself, which is the lengthy night vision sequence, which appears as a grainy green. The look of this scene didn’t work for the movie, and this otherwise superb transfer shouldn’t be faltered with its turnout.

Audio ****

Rollerball carries with it a roaring fury of sound, which alone promises a bona fide solid presentation. MGM has issued one of their most striking audio tracks to date with this knockout 5.1 track mix. The rollerball scenes are most incredible, as the sport action, crowd noise, and boomin’ soundtrack are all well blended together to create one most memorable DVD experience. The music in the movie includes cuts from the likes of Rob Zombie and Slipknot, which are also standouts. Sure to be one of the best audio transfers of the year.

Features ***1/2

MGM holds up their grand reputation for extras with another top-notch Special Edition release. In addition to containing the new R rated version of the film, the disc also offers a most humorous and entertaining commentary from stars Chris Klein, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and LL Cool J. Also included is a documentary titled “The Stunts of Rollerball”, an Interactive Rollerball Yearbook featuring clip highlights of characters and game aspects. Featured as well is a music video for Rob Zombie’s song “Never Gonna Stop Me”, a theatrical teaser and trailer for the movie.

Summary:

Rollerball isn’t as incredibly bad as many critics made it out to be, and most of it is actually well done, but I expect more from a director like John McTiernan. The DVD, on the other hand, is a sure-fire keeper.