I used to think that Renny Harlin was the poor man’s John McTiernan. Now, it looks like McTiernan has turned into the unbelievably impoverished man’s Renny Harlin. Harlin has made some turkeys in his day — The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island. Indeed, when he took over the from McTiernan for the second Die Hard picture, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, he looked for all the world like a copycat director who didn’t even understand what he was copying (“Gee, McTiernan used the Beethoven Ninth in his film, so I’ll stick Sibelius’ “Finlandia” in mine … whether it fits or not”). But never has Harlin made a movie quite so bad as Rollerball. Quite simply, McTiernan has out-Harlined Harlin. Every bad thing you’ve heard about Rollerball is true — only more so. It ranks high among the most excruciating 115 minutes I’ve ever spent in a theater. The 1975 original Rollerball was no great shakes, but it seems like the Citizen Kane of futuristic roller-derby movies (a sub-genre that will hopefully remain little explored) by comparison. Granted, McTiernan is fighting against a truly deplorable screenplay, which, among other things, makes the mistake of setting the film a mere three years into the future, thereby undercutting whatever cautionary tale might be at the bottom of the concept. The world quite simply hasn’t changed enough by 2005 to make this mess believable. Worse, the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with its villains, or even how villainous they are. Jean Reno makes a superb bad guy — or at least he would if the film could decide how bad he is. Is he behind the ratings-boosting violence and murder (or near-murder — another point the film is unclear on) besetting the “sport” of rollerball? Or is he merely cashing in on it? Who knows and who really cares, when you can’t even make sense out of the game itself? All we know about the game is that it’s violent; it’s played on skates and motorcycles; it involves a steel ball that looks like a shotput; and the players wear bizarre costumes, head-dresses and masks. Beyond that … do the opposing teams even try to take the ball away from each other? Based on the evidence on the screen, they don’t, but then McTiernan’s handling of the games is so inept in its choppiness that it’s impossible to tell. It’s all just loud and violent and decked out in some undistinguished heavy-metal music. The camera is constantly moving and McTiernan is constantly cutting — even resorting to taking frames out of shots so that his characters pop around the frame like something out of a 1902 Melies trick short film — and never to any real purpose, except to keep the viewer distracted from examining the plot and the groaningly awful dialogue. Little of the dialogue is coherent and none of the film makes much sense. Why, for example, is an extended sequence where our bland hero, played by Chris Klein (apparently thinking he’s about to inherit the Keanu Reeves action-hero mantle), and his sidekick (LL Cool J) try to escape from their team shot in an ultra-grainy, green, night-vision look? Even if you can justify that look, the question then arises, why is the look suddenly dropped for the last shot of the sequence? And then there’s Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ character, the outspoken rollerball veteran with whom Klein’s character is in love. She’s given very minor marks on one side of her face that look for all the world like cat scratches, but the dialogue tells us that she’s disfigured and ashamed of her face. Presumably, they wanted her to be both glamorous and disfigured at the same time, and arrived at the cat-scratch compromise. Whatever the idea, it works just about as well as anything else in the film — which is to say, not at all. A lot of things explode, people fly about the screen, people get pummeled in various ways, the camera moves nearly all the time, the editing jumps all over the place. Despite all this hyperkinetic nonsense, the film is as dull as it can possibly be. One thing is certain: Even though it’s only February, Rollerball is a shoo-in to figure prominently on just about everyone’s “Worst of 2002” list.
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