ROLLERBALL (2001) test print Review
There are some days where my life seems absolutely unlikely. So unlikely that when I live that day in question, I have to pinch myself to realize that it is true.
Monday, June 4th, 2001, I received a phone call that was just plain… weird and cool in all the ways that the idea of AICN has ever been cool.
The phone call was an invitation from John McTiernan to fly to a "major metropolitan area" to see his latest film ROLLERBALL.
The flight was to leave Austin at close to 2am and I could bring two people. I chose Father Geek and Quint. We waited in hushed silence at the airfield beginning at 1am. A smaller private airfield… Empty, silent… like a movie set. I drug out the laptop and had my dvd for PREDATOR playing for all to see. My god… I’m getting ready to meet John McTiernan. McTiernan is one of my all time favorite action adventure movie directors. His PREDATOR, HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and DIE HARD are absolute perfect films. No flaws in my book. Prototypes that others try to emulate and fail in the attempt. McTiernan had been stumbling a bit recently as a filmmaker, but THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR was a joy… a damn fine film. Not as original or as perfect as the other 3 I mentioned here… But definitely a film that began to erase the horror of what happened to him on 13th WARRIOR when Crichton replaced him and began reshooting large hunks of the film. But McTiernan has turned into a ‘hit-and-miss’ director, where he was once supreme.
I was giddy and nervous all at once to be meeting McTiernan because… I’ve been pissing all over ROLLERBALL for about a year now… Ever since they moved away from an earlier draft of the screenplay to the one they shot… The differences between the two were gigantic. ROLLERBALL had been a pick of mine to be among the worst films of SUMMER 2001… but I was hoping I was wrong. Hoping only because I love the way McTiernan shoots his action in a film… Every single film of his has completely perfect action geography. You always know where everything plays out.
The plane lands and on the field I meet John… McT as he likes to be called. The plane is being refueled in the background, the full moon hangs in the partly cloudy sky above… and we small talk about the Austin area, how I got my start… basic get to know the other person conversations.
Then I ask, "So where are we going?" He begins laughing, "Oh you already know." Honestly, I had no clue where we would be flying to. "New York," he says. OH YES! My New York Kitten will be pleased as punch, I haven’t had a chance to be with her since Akira… She’s been traveling all over the world as have I and our schedules and lives are such that it was looking like we wouldn’t see each other till late July… BUT YIPPEE! I get to see her NOW! I was tempted to call her instantly, but no… I’d wait till I was in New York.
The plane finally fueled up, McT climbs in first, followed by Quint and Father Geek… Then me. And then the editor and McT’s assistant. I couldn’t believe that this was how I would be seeing ROLLERBALL. I began to feel better about the film, if McT was going to go out of his way to show me the film early, I was hoping that perhaps I was wrong about the film and that there was quite a bit more to the movie than I was expecting.
The next 4 hours were a non-stop conversation… basically 1 on 1 with John McTiernan… Not talking about his films, not asking about PREDATOR or DIE HARD or Sean Connery… No, we were talking cinema. Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT… Tom Stoppard… The glory of storytelling by Kubrick and Hitchcock. This was the dream of the conversation you would wish to have with a major filmmaker… Exchanging ideas and thoughts about each others favorite films. Eventually ROLLERBALL and why the hell I was on the plane came up.
AICN had seen reviews of the roughcut of ROLLERBALL already. Positive reviews. Reviews that I was a doubting Thomas on. McT felt that if I were going to be pissing on the film, he’d rather I came in the front door than the back… that I see it and judge it rather than an anonymous type. There were no rules for me seeing the film, no limits…
I genuinely loved talking with McTiernan about film, loved listening to him beam about what he was trying to do with ROLLERBALL. John is an infectious personality… extremely nice and charming. Once again, the dream of what you as a fan of his films would hope that he’d be. The conversation and time together was as wonderful as the times I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Rodriguez and Peter Jackson… Just non-stop lover for film. I was ready to love his ROLLERBALL.
Which is what makes it all the harder to pan his ROLLERBALL in this workprint form.
The screening was in Long Island. Heavily attended by MGM brass. I will most definitely see this film again, only to see if McTiernan can make this mess work somehow.
Now this isn’t a total bomb… more than I thought there would be given the script. So, I’m going to divide this up into what works and what doesn’t.
First, the good:
This film is an unapologetic hard R. This movie hurts more than the original ROLLERBALL… the viciousness of the action was an actual assault on the senses. That steel ball knocking blood and teeth out of faces… Full on nudity throughout, yes including Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. This isn’t a pansy film, this is mean and cruel and hard.
Jean Reno’s Number 2 man… I don’t know his name, but he was the best performance in the entire film. He plays a bit of a sleazy quiet guy that makes things happen. That pulls the strings for Jean Reno. He and Reno play good cop, bad cop to get their way, and this man is a charmer. He looked like he was from India, but I will learn the identify of this chap. He’s someone to keep on the radar (once we discover who he is).
The Concept for the film. The concept of what McTiernan was attempting was a valid and even good angle to approach ROLLERBALL from. Dad had a great comment about how he felt this film plays with the original. This film is in the same universe as the second film, but instead of taking place 150 years from now… it is NOW. This is the birth of the sport, not the death of it. This film takes place upon the Asian continent. Russia, India, Mongolia… those areas. The idea is that in the post-Communist Russia, there is a shady mafia-style gambling-financed investor group that has become empowered and controls the sweat-shop style mining, the working class factories… At the same time, they create a game that will be so addictive and allegedly ripe for gambling because it’s an ‘honest’ game. The film focuses on the first star of the sport… a fresh faced American with a killer smile and innate skating talent perfect for the sport. This isn’t the character played by James Caan… Chris Klein is playing Jonathan Cross… Not Jonathan E. Different companies do not own different teams… this is all held by the Jean Reno character. And Reno is using Klein’s wholesome tough showcase ability to grow the popularity of the sport, which is based completely on ratings. Instant Nielsons… and if it begins to dip, or not rise high enough… time to pull strings and engineer accidents… blood for the home audience. Instant gore replays…
Now for the bad…
While I like the basic concept above, no ideas are ever fully developed. It was like the script was an early rough sketch of ideas just thrown together for a nonsensical film. There are no great characters, only one really interesting character and many tediously annoying characters.
1. Nobody wants to play ROLLERBALL, there is no love for the game by the athletes. They’re all in it for the money and plan to leave the sport as soon as they can.
2. There is no teamwork. Nobody on the team really cares for one another, nobody works together and nobody is really interested in winning the game. After the opening ‘luging’ sequence, LL COOL J tries to recruit Klein to join Rollerball by saying something along the lines of, "It’ll be just like old times, I’ll block and you’ll score!" Well, cool… You would now expect to see that happen… right? I’m still waiting.
3. Chris Klein’s character is a complete loser. He quits on everything. Beginning with the opening (cool in concept, but why’s it in this movie) luge sequence through city streets… He never gets to the bridge. He decides not to try for the NHL and instead of facing the cops, he decides to flee the country. Then he’s a big star in Rollerball, but we never really see why… His team is on the road to win the championship, but all he wants to do is quit. He’s constantly running away from his problems, and only faces them when absolutely forced to…. And even then, he doesn’t go all the way.
4. The game of ROLLERBALL has been transformed from an amazingly visceral speed driven, strategy filled and violent spectacle… into a ludicrous nonsense of going through some sort of AMERICAN GLADIATOR style obstacle course… "through the rabbit hole, over the ramp and while in mid-air you have to score." As a result, there is no defense… no real rhythm to the game. No rules. No sense of what’s going on in the game. There is not one time in the movie where we really have an idea of what the score is… We know Chris Klein’s team won, but by how much? I don’t know. Were they ever behind? I don’t know. Who died? Who cares? We didn’t care about them anyway.
5. A game for boys and girls. Looking at the players in ROLLERBALL v2, the women are more mature than the men, the men are all smooth skinned boys. There’s none of that hockey/football missing toothed, aged look here.
6. The various costumes come straight out of some sort of WWF or WCW game, but in a team sport… it looks ludicrous. All the masks would limit line of sight for the players and make it extremely easy to defeat. The only characters in the game whom’s faces we see during the game tend to be Chris Klein and LL Cool J… everyone else is wearing extravagant helmets and pink tutus and dresses and knights in armor and a jester’s outfit. WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS DO? Well for one it dehumanizes the game. You never see fear on their faces, you can’t see a character trying to figure out what is going on. When they die… you don’t see that on their faces… you see a costumed clown that was never a human being in your eyes.
7. The Rollerball action is terrible. You never get a sense of speed or direction. There is never any clear geography to the positioning of the teams or how to defend. The way to score is incredibly ludicrous, it’s like trying hit the side of a barn with tomato from 10 feet, impossible to miss. There’s this ludicrous "for the folks at home" cg toon like display about how you play the game, which is intercut with the action… but it doesn’t help at all. There are no long shots, we never track with a character or a series of characters. We get flashes of people flying up in the air throwing the silver ball to each other… BUT we never get a sense of how much that ball weighs.
8. Apparently there is no scoreboard. No officials. But there is a rock n roll band behind Plexiglas that a player can que to play their very own action theme live. Oh, there are 20,000 shots of screaming fans. There’s about 10 minutes on screen of machines counting money from the gambling… we’re told this is the new Las Vegas, but we never see the desperation of the losers… the dreams being crushed. We have minutes at a time of watching the announcer do goofy things in his booth, like drink alcohol, smoke pot, overact… Whereas in the first film, you’d hear the announcer, never see him, and stay focused on the game. In this film, it was like McTiernan went out of his way to stay as unfocused on the game as possible. Hey, I know… Let’s spend lots of time in the tv control room, the owner’s box, talking with investors, fans drinking beer, lots of money counting, an obnoxious announcer scratching himself… Oh… oh yeah, I guess we’ll through in a few moments of ultraviolence, and ummm… yeah, that’s a wrap. Dear god this blew.
9. The best action scenes are the opening luging, which has nothing really to do with the film. A car chase tag team thing with Chris Klein and LL Cool J to a tit bar, once again that really doesn’t have to do with anything. Then a 10 minute escape executive management motorcycle chase through a desert all done in that green nightvision look. These 3 action scenes are edited to thrill… Each shot leading to the next. COMPLETELY NOT LIKE THE ROLLERBALL SEQUENCES. But I don’t want to see car chases, motorcycle chases and luging in a ROLLERBALL movie. I want to see ROLLERBALL.
10. Remember in THE LAST ACTION HERO, how Arnie had to defeat the same guy he defeated at the beginning of the movie at the end of the movie… And we’re supposed to be all riddled with suspense about an opponent that we’ve already seen the hero defeat? Well that’s here again.
11. One of the single worst moments of ill-conceived action geography I’ve ever seen on film. Character A is laying on his belly on a road. Character B is leaping over a draw bridge at the end of the road. The draw bridge is at a radically high angle. Character B makes it to the otherside to be shot from a character about a mile away, who we see getting everything ready for about a minute before. So we know it is going to happen. As soon as Character B falls over on the otherside of the drawbridge, mere feet before reaching the ‘border’, character A screams in anguish. Ahem… From character A’s point of view, there is no possible way he could have seen what happened because the bridge was fully raised at this point. He could not have heard the gunshot (FROM A MILE AWAY), so… IT COMPLETELY DOESN’T WORK.
12. This film also has the worst love scene since SLIVER. Not romantic, no intimacy, no care or love… Starts with a nude back of the girl curling a barbell at the gym and ends with a weird on-screen video display of blood being knocked out of a simpleton Rollerball player’s mouth. Oh… and seemingly each time in the film we see this, the amount and color of the blood changes.
Now you should realize… this was an early test screening, but this film has about 2 months before release. To make it good, they need only flesh out the characters, make them likable, coherently re-edit every single Rollerball sequence, redesign the course so you could follow what was going on. Create sports tension by having the game actually mean something to the players. Make the players mean something to the players. Show the players as something more than guys and girls concerned with something more than money and getting laid. And even by doing all of that, you’re only going to marginally help the film, because ultimately the basic story is about a boy that wants to quit.
What is particularly horrifying to me about the film is that in talking with McTiernan before seeing the film, he was talking about the rhythm of how you construct a scene in a film by way of editing. He brought up Truffaut, Hitchcock, Kubrick amongst others.
While thinking about that, I revisited in my mind the action choreography of both PREDATOR and DIE HARD. At all times the construction of where things lay in those films are abundantly clear. Like in DIE HARD how McClane has to go from A to B… but bad guys X and Y are placed to shoot him as he makes the run. X and Y know that he’s barefoot, and make the journey harder by shooting the glass. Thereby intensifying the scenario. In PREDATOR… Arnie’s trap for the Predator is laid out to perfection. We know how he has to do things. And as we see it play out we believe it because each shot leads us logically to the next. Here… we cut around like a maniac… but even with the fast paced editing, there is never a sense of journey for the characters. What are they doing? Where are they going? How hard is it to do that? And lastly, What did they just do?
The film is literally one of the worst conceived series of nonsensical action I’ve ever seen. It was enjoyable while sitting there, but in a minor sort of way. Only because the violence is extreme… the nudity is diverting… But this reduces it to just pure exploitation. However, if this stuff was cut… Well the film would be a completely worthless piece of cinema. As it is, the film is mediocre with very very few bright spots.
There is not a single moment in the entire film that begins to compare to the original ROLLERBALL. The action is amateurish by comparison… the dramatics and character work are childishly ill-conceived… and the more and more you think about the film, the more miserable it becomes.
I like John McTiernan. I had a great time in New York. Had an absolutely great time with my lovely New York Kitten in that wonderful bathroom at that wonderful hotel. But the one reason I went… the reason to be there was this new ROLLERBALL, which for a while I kidded myself into thinking was better than I expected (and I was expecting a terrible film), but the more I began to recall the film… the worse and worse and worse it became.
This film is a complete embarrassment. Personally, if I were MGM, I’d digitally remaster and rerelease the original. It would gross more than this crap easily. Everyone I met associated with the project was incredibly cool, and I wish this movie was what action fans have grown to expect from McTiernan, but that just isn't here and that's the honest and unmerciful truth of the matter. Oh well, I'll look forward to the next McTiernan film, he never makes two bombs in a row... not yet anyway.
P.S. To Derek Smalls below: I sat in the theater watching the NRG crew pass out the forms that people filled out, watched the 3 guys in front of us mark the film as DEFINITELY RECOMMEND, and got up. At the instant the film was over, I thought, "Well, that wasn't as bad as I thought." I kinda dug the exploitation level violence and nudity for pure base levels. I walk out of the screen, really not wanting to talk to anyone. When I'm not pleased with a movie as someone's guest, I generally don't feel like railing them in front of their producers, executives and the whole world. I also like to be able to have time to reflect upon my feelings regarding a movie. McTiernan came over, did the sort of, "Well" look, and I commented that I liked how the film was an unapologetic hard R, that not enough films have the balls for that these days. I also commented on how the casting of Chris Klein made a completely different hero than James Caan, because looking at Chris, I thought he was going to get his ass kicked throughout the film. I said how I wished the whole film had been older... going with folks like Russell Crowe or Chow Yun Fat... Someone like that. Then this NRG person pulled him away to head in to conduct the focus group after the film. At this point, I started talking about the arrangements to return to Austin. I was then asked what 4 things I would do to make the film better, I said... Cut the non-relevant action scenes. Re-edit all the ROLLERBALL sequences so that it could be perceived as to what was actually going on... inserts of scores, cut out the constant money counting and ludicrous amounts of crowd shots, and then a fan of the site came up and said, "Harry please tell me you're going to crucify that piece of shit!" I looked at him and smiled. But the film didn't completely begin to fall apart till I started talking about the film on the ride back to the hotel, where all the action scenes began to fall apart logically. Where I began taking apart why I didn't care when characters died, triumphed or did anything. The biggest problem with a test screening, is your true feelings about a film are actually hours after you saw it. When you begin reflecting and revisiting various moments in your mind. This film dies in that place.