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Rollerball (1975)


The story is simple, yet the film meanders all over the place.  James Caan, the ostensible hero, seems drugged and more or less mumbles his lines.  The vision of a future (2018) where corporations run the world is utterly ludicrous.  Yet this was one of the formative movies of the youth of the 1970s.  Why?  Because the game of rollerball just looks so cool.  For whatever demented reason, even though we were all in our early teens, every kid in our neighborhood got to see this movie when it came out, despite what was considered graphic violence back in the day.  And what did we do as soon as we got home?  Of course, we ran across the street, or rode, and set up our our own rollerball arena.  A couple guys got to ride bicycles--well, "got to", might be inappropriate since we quickly discovered how easy it was to clothesline them as they rode by--while the rest just ran around a circular track (recall that rollerblades had not yet been invented and roller skates were strictly sissywear).  And we used a softball that you had to cram into a garbage can to score a goal.  We played in the asphalt parking lot of Clifford J. Scott High School in East Orange, NJ.  A great time was had by all, or most, but we played just once, because we were all so bloody by the end that we were warned in no uncertain terms never to play again and were probably secretly relieved at the command.

Watching the movie for the first time in 25 years, it is amazing to see how lifeless this fondly remembered action film is at any moment that the game isn't on screen.  James Caan plays Jonathan E, the greatest player in the history of rollerball.  He's leading his Houston team towards another championship season, but the executives of the corporate council--who govern every aspect of life--feel that he's becoming bigger than the game and that worries them.  So Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), the executive who runs the Energy Corporation and the Houston squad, informs Jonathan that it is time for him to retire.  As he tells Jonathan, "The game was designed to show the futility of individual action", not to turn one man into a hero.

But Jonathan loves the game and he already resents the corporation for taking away his wife (Maud Adams) when an executive wanted her.  So he refuses to quit.  This prompts the powers-that-be to start mucking about with the rules in order to intimidate him and force him out.  In a game against Tokyo, with limited substitutions and no penalties, his friend and teammate, Moonpie, is attacked and put into a coma.  (Though, interestingly, Jonathan refuses to give his consent to withdraw life support.)  But Jonathan and Houston win the game to set up a championship showdown with New York.  Increasingly desperate, the corporation brings Jonathan's wife back to plead with him.  By now he's started to openly bad-mouth the corporatocracy and she defends them (and I'm sorry but this won't be the precise dialogue) by saying that they provide comfortable lives.  He counters that what they offer is actually a choice between comfort or freedom, and when she says they are the same thing he shouts that they are not and stalks away.   By the time she catches up to him at the house he is erasing the videos that he'd kept as mementos of their life together.  Now freed of any ties to his past or to other humans, Jonathan faces a final game where there are to be "No substitutions, no penalties, and no time limit"--in other words, only one man will be left standing.  Guess who?

When you consider all that this movie has going for it--a pretty good cast; the game itself; and the classic theme of the triumph of individualism--the fact that it is so mediocre is all the more frustrating.  It's easy to see why it was recently remade--though I understand with even more disastrous results--it just seems like it would be so easy to improve upon.  For my money the biggest problem with the film is the character of Jonathan E..  He's simply too ignorant and inarticulate, and his motivations too opaque, to pose a genuine threat to anyone or to really engage our sympathy.  We end up rooting against the corporations more than rooting for him, in much the way that George Orwell described siding with the workers in Homage to Catalonia :

    I have no particular love for the idealized 'worker' as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual
    flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.

We recognize the "natural enemy" in Bartholomew, but descry little of the natural hero in Jonathan E..   His sole virtue is stubbornness and, though he has that in spades, it does not suffice.

However, I must say that the one exchange with his wife comes so close to articulating my own oft-stated view of human existence as a long struggle between freedom and security, that it is enough, along with the action sequences, for me to very cautiously recommend the movie.  Actually, what I really recommend is that you buy the DVD and skip through all the non-rollerball scenes except for the one where he visits Moonpie in the hospital and the one with his wife; this self-edited version is a great improvement over the original.

GRADE : C (self-edited version : B)

Response from Ed Driscoll  [who has a review at DVD REVIEW : of Rollerball (Edward B. Driscoll, SMR DVD Review] :

Orrin,

Great review of Rollerball (and I'd *love* to hear what Norman Jewison thinks of his film being so highly thought of by conservatives--he'd probably have kittens). I think I'm a bit more sympathetic towards the non-action scenes--Houseman, Caan and Moses Gunn are all good actors, and the production design by John Box (who designed several of David Lean's mammoth epics) is very, very good, with a nice mix of modernism (steel, chrome, smooth simple Mies van der Rohe-type shapes) with classical, traditional design (such as Jonathan's ranch, and the mansion where the party for Jonathan's "multi-vision" tribute is held.)

I have only one big disagreement, and that's with your comments about James Caan's performance:

>> James Caan, the ostensible hero, seems drugged and more or less mumbles his lines. <<

If you listen to Jewison's audio commentary on the DVD, I think he wanted to use the persona that Caan created for "Brian's Song", a quiet, driven, very focused athlete, rather than his "Sonny Corleone" hothead persona, which worked so well in the Godfather films and in the underrated film, "Thief" (and which he's parodied in more recent comedies, such as "Honeymoon in Vegas" and "Mickey Blue Eyes").

But you're right, other than the action during the actual Rollerball games, the film maintains the same vaguely somber tone and deliberate pacing as *every* science fiction film made by Hollywood in the period between "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Star Wars". (I recently wrote about those films in my Web log)

It's not a great film, but because of its action, and its message of freedom and individual rights, I think it's held up somewhat better than most of the depressing distopian sci-fi of the pre-"Star Wars" 1977.

Regards,

Ed

And Orrin responds in turn :

Thanks--is it okay if I post your comments?

I too like Houseman and Gunn.  It actually seemed like there must be a plotline involving Gunn that got dropped, because it seemed like he should have either found something out and been eliminated or turned out to be working for Bartholomew.  Houseman at this point is so much identified with Professor Kingsfield that it was a little difficult to accept him in this future setting--though that limitation is my own, not necessarily his.

I loved Thief--and very nearly everything else Michael Mann has ever done. And Caan is, of course, great in Brian's Song and the Godfather. But I really did have trouble with his portrayal here, some of which was his delivery of lines, but also the fact that in the team meeting it is Moonpie who gets the time riled up; Jonathan hardly even seems like a leader there, on his own team.  I can accept that Jonathan is pure individuality (especially by the end) but with no ideas behind him and no ability to lead, it just seems like he wouldn't be that threatening to the suits.

The best surprise on returning to the film after over a quarter century was that scene between Caan and Maud Adams.  Jewison might be surprised to be celebrated for a conservative film, but that one scene is a renunciation of nearly all of Left politics, which seeks to provide physical "comfort". And Jonathan E's triumph is very much a glorification of freedom, which is the conservative concern.

Thanks again for your comments,
O

(Reviewed:16-Mar-02)

Grade: (C)

Websites:

See also:

    -INFO : Rollerball (1975) (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Norman Jewison (Imdb.com)
    -ESSAY : The Oscar for Realism Goes to... : WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE?:  SEE A 30-YEAR- OLD MOVIE. (MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE, March 1998, Salon)
    -DVD REVIEW : of Rollerball (Edward B. Driscoll, SMR DVD Review)
    -REVIEW : of Rollerball (Christopher Null, Filmcritic)
    -REVIEW : of Rollerball (The Flick Filosopher)
    -REVIEW : of Rollerball (Kerry Douglas Dye, LeisureSuit.net)
    -REVIEW : of Rollerball (BBC)
    -REVIEW : of Rollerball (Charter Terminal)
    -REVIEW : of Rollerball (Adrian Gargett, Kamera)
    -DVD REVIEW : of Rollerball (David Lazarus, Salon)

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