Only a few short minutes into John McTiernan’s exceedingly unnecessary remake of Rollerball, LL Cool J makes his appearance. And while your first response may be, “Thank goodness,” since the film is already looking about as three-dimensional as a Tony Hawk videogame, your second is likely to be, “Oh dear,” as it quickly becomes clear that even the usually buoyant LL is going to dragged down with this sinking ship.
Driving a shiny black Porsche, LL’s Ridley rolls up just in time to rescue his buddy Jonathan (Chris Klein), currently on the run from traffic cops. Now, what has this pretty white kid done to merit pursuit by the local 5-0? More to the point, what has he done to merit friendship with the iced-up Ridley? There’s no answer for the second question, but the first seems to hinge on the kid’s penchant for performing acts of faster-and-furiouser machismo for money: just now, he’s been bodysurfing his skateboard up and down Bulletish San Francisco streets (so that the film can begin with a few Thrilling Action Shots) and the cruisers are crashing and burning while trying to keep up.
It’s never clear who’s paying Jonathan or why — apparently he’s awaiting a call from the NHL and in the meantime, desperate for cash. But, as the supersuave Rid points out, the NHL ain’t never gonna call and in “Central Asia,” where he plays a game called rollerball, “even a doofus-ass white boy like you can get laid.” Gee — you can almost see the wheels turning in Jonathan’s head — sounds good. Next thing you know, it’s two years later and Jonathan’s a star in Kazakhstan, playing for an apparently successful version of the XFL on ice, in which players roll around a figure-eight-shaped rink and smash one another with studded gloves, fans scream on cue, and malevolent suits sit in their booth watching “Instant Global Rating” boards, where numbers rise and fall depending on how much blood is on the track (how this works is unclear — viewers somehow anticipate violence in order to tune in as it occurs?).
Based loosely on Norman Jewison’s 1975 film of the same name, McTiernan’s Rollerball sort of considers the same issues (commercial globalization, irrelevance of nations, prostitution of athletes, violence as entertainment), but only sort of. Jewison’s movie railed against corporate culture, characterized as a calculated repression of individuality. Jonathan (here, James Caan) revolts when he’s told that he must retire because he’s become too popular. Perhaps worse, he discovers that players, namely his buddy Moonpie (a.k.a. the protagonist’s deadmeat motivation), are being murdered for ratings. At this point, takes a Gladiator-like shape — Jonathan plays even more fiercely, thus winning the hearts of his fans and defeating the wicked CEO-guy, John Houseman.
In the 2002 version (originally scheduled for a 2001 release and shelved due to someone’s not-so-infinite wisdom), the thrust also seems to be anti-corporate, but Klein’s Jonathan is strictly dullsville, and painfully slow on the uptake. His opponents here are sinister team owner Petrovich (Jean Reno), goaded by numbers-crunching toady Sanjay (Naveen Andrews), conspiring to get players injured. They make big wink-wink jokes about the “integrity” of the game and have parties where barely-dressed girlies service investors and politicians. As indictments of corporatized sports go, this one is not exactly innovative.
In an attempt to inject something resembling plot (or more precisely, sex) into the mix, this Rollerball changes up the original’s boy-boy action to include girls, namely, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. She plays Jonathan’s secret squeeze Aurora, tough on the outside and passionate and playful when they meet after hours at the gym (this is where this boy gets laid, apparently — she yearns for the day where they can do it “on sheets”). There’s some backstory for Aurora that you’ll never know, visible only in the detail that she has a really cool scar over her right eye that she hides with masks when she plays. Jonathan assures her, “Your face isn’t nearly as bad as you think.” Just what she thinks is difficult to fathom, because, of course, she looks like Rebecca Romijn-Stamos with a line drawn over her eye.
It turns out that, though, Aurora is actually quite a good match for Jonathan: they’re equally dim. Apparently they both think they’ve kept their affair a secret (because they don’t want their opponents or their employer to be able to “use it against them”), which they have not. And apparently it takes them exactly the same amount of time to figure out that, gee, the business they’re in is corrupt, hurting people for money. Jonathan’s superstardom makes him marginally more valuable alive than dead, but when he starts making trouble (like, trying to run away to America), management is fine with the idea of killing him off.
If you’re still watching at this point, you’ll probably be fine with that idea too. Though the game announcers seem quite taken with Jonathan (declaring repeatedly that he’s from the Lone Star State, rollerball’s greatest player, and hyped as the would-have-been “next Wayne Gretsky” if only he’d signed that hockey contract he was never offered), you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything about Jonathan that’s compelling. Not only is he dumb as a bag of hammers, he’s also bland to look at (Klein was perfectly cast as the sweet airhead jock in Election; since then, he’s been flailing about for a vehicle to develop his Young Studness, from the American Pies to Here on Earth). Jonathan’s stardom, his rowdy rock-star status, is supposed to be a given, but you don’t believe it for a second.
Worse, the context for his brilliance is murky. Though Jonathan supposedly has prodigious rollerball skills, when the game gets going, it’s so confusing that these are hard to see, let alone measure. Shot from 12 different angles and speed-edited so no one cares who’s on what team, the brutality is more artsy than visceral. At film’s end, when that capitalist dog Petrovich decides to abandon the “rules,” you’ll likely be surprised to learn that there are any to abandon. The panic that registers on the players’ faces when they hear this bad news is meaningless, as said rules have not been even remotely clear from frame one.
The no-rules game is also supposed to be high-stakes for Jonathan, as he’s marked for death: it’s a long and incoherent story; suffice it to say he’s pissed off his employer and so has landed himself in Steven Seagal-land, but only after Ridley serves his deadmeat duty, you know, in order to motivate doofus-white-boy’s turn-around. Ridley’s murder is shot in greenish “night vision,” as he and Jonathan make a run for some border or another, on Ridley’s motorcycle. It’s a remarkable visual and narrative contrivance, so politically retarded that you can only hope LL Cool J was paid really, really well.
In the end, Jonathan is supposed to redeem himself, avenge Ridley’s death, and rescue Aurora (oh yeah, her). And so, he stops the game at last by attacking the wusses in the owners’ booth. Apparently, you’re supposed to be rooting for him, instead of only praying for the film to end. But the means to get you so rooting exemplifies the film’s basic dilemma (which is neither new nor confined to retarded movies like this one; see, for example, Unforgiven): it’s happy to indulge in exactly the groveling-for-ratings violent antics that it pretends to rebuke.