Judge Patrick Naugle is more of a running man.
In the not too distant future, wars will no longer exist…but there will be Rollerball.
Welcome to a future where all the wars have been won and peace has been achieved. In the absence of global conflict, the world has turned to the brutal game of Rollerball to quell their lust for violence. Rollerball's most popular star is Jonathan E (James Caan, Misery), an electric personality and the unofficial face of the sport. Jonathan plays for Houston's team (yes, Texas is still around), owned by the shady Energy Corporation headed by Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman, Scrooged). Mr. Bartholomew has some sinister plans for the game—and Jonathan—which starts to gnaw at the superstar's conscience. When Jonathan is slowly pushed to the sidelines and told he's retiring, rage bubbles over into a climax of bone crushing intensity.
I have a sneaking suspicion those with an affinity for this 1975 sci-fi action flick see the film through nostalgic rose-tinted glasses. Without them, it's hard to see how a movie of this caliber has come to amass any kind of following. Rollerball is ugly, drab, tedious, and filled with mostly unlikable characters. The scenes which show the game are well executed, but in 2014 Rollerball doesn't feel futuristic. Rather it's a mashed up version of Whirlyball, Roller Derby, and The X-Games. Unless you consider roller-skates futuristic, most viewers will be scratching their heads as what's so advanced about this sport. Rollerball takes place in a dystopian future, but the bleak outlook sure looks a lot like the swinging '70s. In fact, everything about the film drips with disco fever, from the character's hairstyles and weird production design to its Formica sets and chintzy furniture. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Shields and Yarnell were the set decorators.
The cardinal sin of Rollerball is that it's just plain boring! Clocking in at over two hours, director Norman Jewison (Moonstruck) must've had a hard time making sure the movie didn't stray into long, snooze worthy stretches of exposition. Between bone-crunching action sequences, characters wander in and out of each other's lives discussing politics and possible dissension. The film doesn't offer much subtlety, such as when Caan and Houseman get into an argument intercut with a group of privileged Rollerball fans shooting futuristic guns at trees (the physical explosions are supposedly the verbal explosions of Caan and Houseman's characters). This ham-fisted drama doesn't mesh well with its action on the court.
James Caan is woefully miscast in the role of Jonathan E, underplaying the character and making Jonathan too laid back for a man who spends his life knocking heads in a ring. The character demands someone with a more dynamic personality. This would have been a far better role for Arnold Schwarzenegger than it was for James Caan. John Houseman also appears miscast. Bartholomew is supposed to be villainous, but the genteel actor just comes off like a kindly old grandfather. There are other actors to be found here—including Maud Adams (Octopussy) as Jonathan's love interest, and Moses Gunn (Shaft) as the token black character—none of whom generate much of an impact.
I know there are those who love Rollerball with the intensity of a thousand suns, but I'm perplexed by its popularity. With so many science fiction movies out there, how did this one become so popular? The film is so beloved that director John McTiernan (Die Hard) attempted to reboot it with a failed 2002 remake. I saw that film and prefer it to this one, which is saying something considering how bad the remake is.
Rollerball (1975) (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.85:1/1080p HD widescreen and looks very good for its age. The colors are crisp and bright, the black levels exceptionally solid; there is some grain and minor defects in the print, but it's nothing that will detract from the viewing. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is not a surround sound heavy mix, though there are some moments where directional effects kick in. The biggest boost comes from Andre Previn's score (with classical undertones), which comes in loud and clear.
Bonus features include a commentary from director Norman Jewison, a second commentary from writer William Harrison, a couple of vintage featurettes on the making of the film ("From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle," "Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball"), some TV spots, a theatrical trailer, a trailer for MGM's 90th anniversary, and an isolated score track.
Rollerball is a long and laborious film with a few interesting scenes spread out between moments of absolute boredom. Science Fiction should fill us with wonder and awe, not make us wonder when the thing will finally end. Twilight Time's release is a good one, so if you need this in your library, pick it up before all 3,000 copies disappear.
Tries and tries but can't score any points.
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Studio: Twilight Time
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