The ugliness of the sports business provides the context for the wreckage that is “Rollerball.” Although Norman Jewison’s stolidly grim and ultimately ludicrous 1975 original was hardly a landmark of nightmarish sci-fi, it towers over this, the second Jewison picture that John McTiernan has remade, after “The Thomas Crown Affair.” New pic is sheer chaos on wheels, a hysterically edited jumble that defies belief at nearly every juncture. MGM’s latest plunge into its library, which was postponed from its original August release date, will lure in unsuspecting guys teased by its WWF and extreme sports allusions, but word of mouth will shortly send this one to the showers.
The opening minutes are just goofy enough to set up expectations for a fresh “Rollerball” that knows not to take itself seriously — certainly not nearly as seriously as the original. Our hero Jonathan (Chris Klein) and his unidentified opponent compete in a death-defying luge race down the streets of San Francisco; then Jonathan’s buddy Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J) suddenly appears out of nowhere and snatches up Jonathan in his Porsche before the cops can get him. Marcus tells Jonathan he should drop his plans to try out for the NHL and try out for the Rollerball league instead.
Four months later, Jonathan has indeed opted for Rollerball, which is centered — of all places — in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan and operated by business mogul and ex-KGB agent Petrovich (Jean Reno). Jonathan appears ready to play any game for the paycheck, and Kazakhstan can apparently outbid the NHL. Jonathan also seems to like knocking competing Rollerballers upside down and sideways, and a little blood doesn’t bother him either.
But the game itself is explained (by Paul Heyman’s obnoxiously excessive play-by-play announcer) and edited so frantically that it’s indecipherable: Gone is the original’s long, elegant roller derby-like rink in favor of a cheesy-looking welter of figure-eight loops, ramps and platforms that appear designed to cause multi-skater pileups. The players all adopt various personae, complete with silly costuming including full medieval armor. In the case of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ Aurora, her helmet covers her eyes.
Off-rink conflict has Petrovich secretly wanting to increase the sport’s violence (for the ratings, which could lead to a U.S. cable deal), which Jonathan opposes. After a rapid sexual tryst in the team locker room between Jonathan and Aurora, she shows Jonathan videotape revealing that a recent game accident was actually prearranged. By the time the team plays a second game in what appears to be Saudi Arabia, and then a third in Mongolia, even Marcus — who, after all, is responsible for getting Jonathan into this mess — senses something is rotten.
Aurora helps the guys escape, which is filmed for no good reason in night vision pea-soup green, but leading to pic’s only exciting few moments as Jonathan is captured; his torture is listening to Reno’s peculiar brand of English (“I have geeeven you totahl freedom, eeeven satellite tee-vee!!”)
The final game, as in the original, is to the death, but this time, Klein is garishly turned into Charles Bronson on roller skates, butchering the bad guys, including Petrovich’s calculating right-hand man, Sanjay (Naveen Andrews, mightily trying to camp it up). Much of this appears to have been frantically shortened for time, but any violence — as well as Romijn-Stamos’ carefully silhouetted breasts — are kept just this side of an R rating.
Although role provides Klein with his first starring turn, it robs him completely of the charming fresh-scrubbed image he memorably first projected in Alexander Payne’s “Election.” Klein seems like an unhappy camper from start to finish. LL Cool J is his usual relaxed self, while Romijn-Stamos is directed to lift weights topless and to look tough.
The only impressive design or production feature in this ugly-looking affair is a lineup of ultra-sleek sports cars, doled out as rewards to the speed-addicted Rollerball stars.