Friday, September 23, 2005

ROLLERBALL (1975) - Norman Jewison

If Rollerball has anything at all to say about the future, it is this: In the future, people will STILL kowtow to celebrities. Or maybe just to Jimmy Caan. In this movie, it’s hard to tell the difference.
Either way, the monolithic Corporation that has taken over society in Rollerball sure does its share of genuflecting. Here Caan plays champion Rollerball star Jonathan E., the rough and tumble leader of the Houston team in a Corporation-sponsored full contact roller derby sport, a cross between hockey, motor cross, football, and gladiator games. The problem is that Jonathan has gotten too big for his padded britches – winning all the time, breaking all the records, making it more about himself than “the game.” He’s kinda become the Michael Jordan of Rollerball, minus a few of the endorsements and Space Jam.
Now the Corporation wants him to retire. Permanently. Jonathan doesn’t swallow this bitter corporate pill too easily. Initially, he whines a bit (in a meek Texan accent no less) when Bartholomew, the corporate titan played by John Houseman, tells him it’s time to turn in his pads. He mumbles something about the Corporation already having sent his first wife away. Houseman doesn’t really press the issue, just tells him to think about it.
Meanwhile, Jonathan returns to his luxury mansion where his new hot wife (apparently, the Corporation has a six-month hot wife rotation thing going) greets him at the door. Jonathan bypasses her mumbling a bit more, goes right to see his live-in African American buddy (Moses Gunn) who’s punching the steady bag in the gym. Later, they share some vague talk about finding out why the Corporation wants him to retire, which never really amounts to much other than Caan going to some kind of futuristic library and asking the all-knowing computer questions about the Corporation which it promptly refuses to answer.
Not to worry though. This evil corporation is pretty lax. Evildoer-wise, it’s not at Halliburton levels. For some reason, they keep letting Jonathan play, only making weak attempts to fool him into announcing his retirement on TV and later giving him a retirement party full of Studio 54 models and soma-like sex drugs. Why don’t they bar him from entering the rollerball arena? Why don’t they break his skating legs? Or why don’t they do what must evil futuristic corporations do? Have him rubbed out. Why? Because they obviously fear THE POWER OF THE CAAN.
Whatever their reason, it makes them one of the weakest evil sci-fi corporation antagonists I’ve ever seen. And though this element kills a lot of the movie’s momentum, there is admittedly a lot of fun to be had in the rollerball scenes. It’s a fun fictitious sport to watch and I’m sure, though I haven’t seen it, much bloodier in the remake. The party scenes are even more fun because they ooze that whole decadent late-'70s Studio 54 vibe. In most of these scenes, you feel like Caan just walked right onto the set from his private bungalow at the Playboy Mansion and didn’t even bother to change wardrobe.
Socio-political activist director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, The Hurricane) seems a little out of his element here, though he does make a kind of half-hearted effort to push the “lone individual overcoming corporate tyranny” theme (just so long as that individual is also a celebrity sports star). I do have to admit getting into the movie during the final bloody rollerball match when it’s down to just Caan and one other guy on the opposing team, everyone else mortally wounded. Houseman’s up in the stands looking nervous and angry as the crowd chants: “Jon-a-thon! Jon-a-thon! Jon-a-thon!” But I think what I was really hearing was Rollerball’s more appropriate chant…
“Fear-the-Caan! Fear-the-Caan! Fear-the-Caan!!!!”

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