This week, I want to reflect on one of the most disappointing movie experiences of my adolescence. I was so pumped to see this one particular film that came out during my high school days. It was the most excited I had been for a movie in quite some time and I thought right away that it was going to be one of my all-time favorites. Key word here: Thought.
You all know who John McTiernan is, right? Director of the action classics Predator and Die Hard. Well, in the mid-90s following his work on the third entry in the Die Hard series, Die Hard with a Vengeance, his career started going a bit south. He released two films in 1999: The 13th Warrior starring Antonio Banderas, which underperformed greatly at the box office and a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair which, while a hit, is largely forgotten nowadays.
After failing a to produce another memorable film since the Die Hard series, McTiernan attempted a comeback targeting a younger audience and creating tons of hype.
The film in question is Rollerball.
Released in 2002, Rollerball is actually a remake of a James Caan film from 1975. While the original was more of a science-fiction affair, this re-imagining was more of an action flick.
I was barely 16 when this hit theaters but I still remember its commercials so vividly. Being a big wrestling fan, they would constantly air during Monday Night Raw and Smackdown on Thursday nights. They were some of the coolest television spots I had ever seen at the time. I was blown away by the action and was stunned to witness a quick cameo by WWE’s own Shane McMahon. Plus, Corey Taylor, lead vocalist of Slipknot, one of my favorite groups as a teen, appeared as well in headbanging fashion. This picture appealed to my demographic and I was instantly sold without virtually any knowledge of the film’s premise. In that moment, nothing was going to stand in my way to see Rollerball.
Except for the fact that it was rated R so I had no chance of seeing it without adult supervision. I considered acquiring a fake I.D. like a lot of my friends had but instead just decided to ask my mother to take me. Well, no way in hell was my mother interested in seeing a stupid action film with her son when he should be studying and trying to get into a good college. I let it slide and eventually the film was released on DVD and later, premium cable. I didn’t really pay attentions to reviews back then so I had no idea what the general opinion of the film was and surprisingly, I didn’t know anyone who went and saw it. That last point should have tipped me off but as a naive teenager, I didn’t care. Well I was finally able to see it after the hype died down and to say I was disappointed would be the understatement of the century.
The main protagonist here is played by Chris Klein, best known for his role as Oz from the American Pie series and by being a third-rate Keanu Reeves look-alike. Here, Klein is a hockey star named Jonathan Cross who is courted by his friend, Marcus, played by LL Cool J, to play a dangerous new sport called Rollerball overseas in Kazakhstan, where it’s become a phenomenon. Cross accepts the lucrative offer and instantly becomes the sport’s top dog.
With P.O.D. and Rob Zombie blaring in the background, Rollerball pits two teams of skaters and bikers fighting for possession of a ball to shoot into a goal while trying desperately not to stand in a rival biker’s path. First team to score the most goals wins. Sound simple? Well, it sure hurt trying to figure out how the game was played as the rules are never properly explained. It was much clearer in the original. Immersed in his new calling, Cross is living the high life, even romantically pursuing the other outstanding player in game, the sexy Black Widow (no, not the Marvel character played by ScarJo), portrayed by Rebecca Romijn.
The fun soon ends when Cross discovers what’s been going on behind the track. The sport’s promoter, the villainous Alexi (Jean Reno, who you can tell is evil because he’s foreign) staged several incidents injuring players to keep Rollerball’s popularity intact and Cross as its hottest athlete. Cross and his teammates attempt to flee the scene after learning this information but are stalked by Alexi and his henchmen.
Later, we witness a scene that is shot completely under the guise of night vision as the players try to make their escape. What might have been a cool idea in theory wound up falling flat on its face. You can’t see a damn thing and the whole effect is unnecessary and jarring. When it’s decided that Cross’ execution is planned to be shown on live television, him and the fellow Rollerball contestants revolt, ultimately overthrowing Alexi and saving the day. Yay.
I have no problem in saying that Rollerball is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. The acting is atrocious, the action never lived up to the hype, and the story is bland. Not to mention how severely disappointed that Shane McMahon and Slipknot’s appearances were only a couple seconds each! (not a legitimate complaint in hindsight admittedly but 16-year-old me is still pissed!) The highlight for me will always be Paul Heyman, the wrestling manager/promoter extraordinaire, who portrays the game’s announcer. The original film is a much smarter, social commentary while this was more of a generic action vehicle that tries to instill the same messages but fails on so many levels. While producing a straight action film isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it has its audience, Rollerball is just too lifeless and desperate for its own good. Could this have been a good movie? Maybe with better writing and a cast that didn’t include the wooden Chris Klein whose chances of being a Hollywood leading man were buried with this picture. Poor Jean Reno had to be a part of this debacle. I hope he got paid well. Naveen Andrews, who played Alexi’s right-hand man rebounded two years later in 2004 with a starring role on the popular ABC series, Lost.
The general public also agreed with me. In addition to it being panned by critics everywhere, it bombed hard at the box office, making only a quarter of its $70 million budget back. This didn’t help John McTiernan’s fledgling film career one bit and in an unrelated incident, he wound up serving time in prison for perjury in 2013.
We’ll always have Die Hard, eh?