Rollerball is a cross between the old
Roller Derby, Lacrosse and a street brawl

Since there is a lot of buzz about the up coming release of a remake for Rollerball, I felt it would be a perfect time to revisit the classic original film. The original, released in 1975, showed a bleak view of a future where huge, global corporations have replaced nations.

The temporal setting of Rollerball is roughly around were we are now, the start of the 21st century. With nations out of the way the corporations run the world, breaking it down along the lines of a company’s org chart. There are the main companies based on super groups like energy that have split up the money of the world for their own gain. As found in so many ‘dystopias’ the individual is a threat to the integrity of those in charge. In order to placate the population the ruling corporations take a page from the Roman playbook, Bread and Circuses. Feed the people and give them cathartic entertainment. The bread comes in the guise of a very Huxley like means, the proliferation of pills to regulate a person’s mood. For the entertainment they invented a game called Rollerball. This game is a cross between the old Roller Derby, Lacrosse and a street brawl. Two teams are pit against each other; some on motorbikes while the others skate around the oval track. A cannon shoots a metal ball out in a groove at the top of the track and it must be taken by the offensive team and slammed into a goal. As with most sports a player comes along that is so good at the game that he becomes an international hero. That player for Rollerball is Jonathan E (James Cann). When he takes the ring the crowds rise to their feet and chant his name. He can have anything he wants, nothing is beyond what the Houston based Energy Corporation can provide. Anything but what Jonathan really wants, to keep playing. He has become so popular that he as risen beyond the purpose of the game, to lessen individual spirit. He is the ultimate individual in a sea of team orientation. At the helm of forcing Jonathan to retire is the head of the corporation is Bartholomew (John Houseman). As one of the rulers of the world he is used to having his way.

In Jonathan E. he has created what he fears most, a man that stands out. Rollerball may be dated now but it still delivers. It combines action with a real story. This is a rare combination today but in a film that just had its 25th anniversary it is a wonder. Sad thing is, if the game of Rollerball were placed on TV today it would without a doubt be a huge hit. I can visualize the newspapers listing player’s statistics like ‘Most Players Hospitalized’. With the success of the WWF and the power of our modern corporations, can Rollerball be considered that much of a fantasy?

Rollerball was made during a silver age of Hollywood. When the studios could assemble the best casts, provide incredible stories and place a talented director in charge. James Cann lives the part of Jonathan. This role came some three years after his portrayal of Sonny in the Godfather. He took a lot from that character to make this one believable. Jonathan is mercurial. His anger and frustration can be easily and legally taken out in the Rollerball arena. Self assured and confident he has no choice but to resist the forced retirement imposed by the corporation. They sought a means to homogenize the population and created the penultimate individual. Cann tends towards very subtle performances punctuated by explosive scenes. Even with today’s bright young stars, few can touch the performances this man has contributed to film history. Houseman was one of the Parthenon on American actors. Best know as the strict law professor in The Paper Chase, his performance here is nothing less than perfect. He exudes control and power. Houseman commands the screen. In his scenes with Cann the two are titans that oppose each other in a clash of wills. One performance that really stands out is John Beck as Moonpie, teammate and best friend of Jonathan. He provides not only the required comic relief but also a contrast. He tows the company line and lives just to be the best he can as a team player. His critical injury also provides the catalyst for the climatic battle of wills and muscles that caps this film.

Norman Jewison is a director of giant status. His eclectic career reads like a best of film guide. He has done everything from musicals to drama to action films. He paints a sullen picture of the future with Rollerball. One that we can now observe the seeds to its beginnings. Having watched many of his more notable films I can only conclude that is style changes with the individual demands imposed by the film before him. In Rollerball he uses a very straightforward style. The camera is kept for the most part on eye level, permitting a first person feel for the audience. The scenes involving the game have the look and feel of TV coverage of a brutal and vicious sport. There is the corporate anthem, the players taking the field, and the commentary and color announcers. Jewison creates a world for our viewing, one that relates so much to what we are used to seeing on a screen that we cannot help but to be drawn in.

Considering the age of the source material the disc is excellent. There are a few scratches present but nothing so bothersome as to distract from the film. The audio is a Dolby 5.1 remix. In the expository and dialogue scenes the mix resembles more of a stereo presentation. Most of the remix was saved for the game. Here, the sound pounds the speakers and enfolds the room. Every slam of a body or crash of a cycle booms from the sub woofer. The director’s commentary is a look back by a great director to one of his favorite films. Unlike many directors placed in this position he doesn’t over glorify his work but provides a clear look at how he made the film. Before the remake comes out get this one and see how a film should be made.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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