Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Updated: May 31, 2:10 PM ET
Dropping the 'Rollerball'

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Is Hollywood really this dumb?

Chris Klein
Chris Klein tries but just can't deliver a Keanu Reeves-esque performance.
That's what I kept asking myself Monday as I struggled to remain conscious during a screening of the reprehensible "Rollerball." Just so you know, the previous sentence took nearly 20 minutes to write -- I wanted to be absolutely certain that "reprehensible" was the best possible adjective. So I hunted down my thesaurus (buried under a phalanx of magazines and pictures) and searched for the perfect word to describe one of the worst movies I have ever seen. And I mean ever.

Dreadful? Appallling? Putrid? Atrocious? Heinous? Execrable? Odious? Abominable? Rancid? Horrific? Ghastly? None of them fit. And then I found it ... reprehensible. Perfect. This movie was reprehensible. I hated everything about it. There isn't a single reason you should see this movie. Not one.

Back to my initial question ... is Hollywood really this dumb? Why does a glorified remake get greenlighted in the first place? Why mess with the original, which was only one of the 10 best sports movies of all-time? If you're forging ahead with this crappy idea, why stray from everything that worked in the original movie? Why make it with B-level stars who can't act? Why release this thing at all, when the initial test screenings were so negative that it delayed the release for six full months?

Why is Hollywood this dumb? Why, why, why?

Thank God for HBO, which answered this question beautifully with their "Project Greenlight" series. Here was the premise of Project Greenlight: Miramax held a contest in which aspiring screenwriters submitted scripts; the winner was given a $1 million budget and a chance to write and direct his/her prospective film. As an added wrinkle, the actual filming of the movie would be captured documentary-style, so other aspiring screenwriters and directors could benefit from the process.

And we learned. Boy, did we learn. Hollywood is chock full of idiots. Newcomer Pete Jones won the contest and the right to film his movie, "Stolen Summer," described as one of those heartwarming, "Stand By Me"-type kid films ... and over the 25-day shoot, all hell broke loose (all captured by HBO's cameras). They hired child actors who couldn't play baseball, despite a script that called for extended baseball scenes. They filmed one scene under train tracks that were so loud that you couldn't hear any of the dialogue. They filmed one action scene twice because none of the cameras were filming the key stuntman the first time around ... he was only jumping out of a burning building.

Wait, there's more. They filmed a Little League scene in a driving downpour, because nobody heeded warnings from that morning's weather reports. They built an expensive water scaffold for a key swimming scene, then abandoned the footage because the star of the movie couldn't swim. And it was worse behind the scenes, where the producers backstabbed one another, distanced themselves from every debacle and passed blame around like a bunch of 10th-grade girls.

Few things astound me anymore, but "Greenlight" astounded me. You really had to watch it from beginning to end. You have this ideal in your head about how things work, then you see something like "Greenlight," and it's almost life-altering. Hell, I could make a movie. You could make a movie. Anyone could make a movie. All you need is two arms, two legs, a head and a script.

***** ***** *****

Back to the "Rollerball" remake ... I understand why they thought the need to remake the 1975 classic directed by Norman Jewison. Good movie ideas are few and far between, which explains why so many remakes and rehashes get churned out. (For God's sake, "Rocky," "Die Hard," "Fatal Attraction" and "48 Hours" probably spawned 300 to 400 imitations among them. If something works once, you pound that formula into the ground. That's Hollywood.) And the original "Rollerball" was original, quirky, memorable and just dated enough that you could make a case for a remake.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' best scenes probably ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Remember the inspired storyline from the original "Rollerball"? You can describe it in two paragraphs. In fact, let's try:

In the year 2018, the United States has become a socialist empire ruled by mammoth corporations, where free speech is discouraged, schooling gives way to "conditioning" and the vast proletariat earns meager wages. In this depressing, Orwellian mess, the sport of Rollerball somehow emerges as a violent hybrid of hockey, football and the roller derby, where disposable players are frequently injured and routinely killed, symbolizing the futility of individual achievement and the power of The System.

(By the way, I'm wearing my Pauline Kael Memorial "haughty movie critic" costume while writing this section. This is fun.)

And yet one player keeps soaring above everyone else, Jonathan E. (played by James Caan), a 10-year veteran who resonates with the fans and endangers The System. So the higher-ups try to break him -- taking his wife, trying to convince him to retire, changing the rules (fewer penalties, fewer substitutions), and ultimately abolishing all rules and turning the championship game into a "Last Man Standing" affair. And still ... they can't stop Jonathan E. The film ends with a bloodied, battered Jonathan skating around at the end of the climactic game, bodies strewn everywhere around the track, as the crowd chants, "Jon-a-than! Jon-a-than!" and John Houseman (head of the corporate empire) makes sinister faces. The end.

Great ending, great movie. And even if it's a little dated, the sci-fi nuances, action sequences and performances still allow it to hold up after all these years.

Could you make a case for a remake here? Maybe. But remakes are touchy, partly because they need to stand apart from the original, and partly because you don't want to antagonize everyone who enjoyed the initial movie. So you're caged into a "Should we update the original, or should we play off the original and create something entirely new?" dilemma. Usually you can count on Hollywood to make the wrong choice.

And in this case, they did. Repeatedly. Five main problems here:

Problem No. 1: The plot
LL Cool J
LL Cool J is as mediocre as ever.
The parts about the futuristic society, corporate regime, Jonathan E. and everything else? Gone. From what I could gather, R2K2 (Rollerball 2002) was apparently shifted to today's world -- although it's impossible to decipher, like everything else in this movie -- as the game moves to Central Asia as some sort of new wave/underground sport (like the UFC gone utterly insane). Instead of a cagey, charismatic veteran, Jonathan E. is an unknown precocious thrill-seeker (played by the no-talent Chris Klein) who doesn't get enough of a rush performing X Games stunts for cash, so he voyages to the Far East to play Rollerball with his buddy Ridley (played by the always-mediocre LL Cool J).

The new-and-improved plot revolves around Jean Reno (as the evil Rollerball promoter) wanting to spruce up the ratings with gratuitous violence -- the whole "let's abolish all rules" ploy again -- so bad things start happening to players during games. Their lives in danger, Klein and LL decide they need to escape, but they get caught at the Russian border after an excruciatingly long sequence filmed in green night vision lighting (what were they thinking?). Then LL dies (you knew that was coming). And then Klein returns to play one last game of no-holds-barred Rollerball. I won't ruin the ending for you, as long as you promise never to see this thing under any circumstances.

(Important note: The night vision sequence was one of the strangest experiences I have ever endured in a movie theater. Utterly confusing, totally misguided, completely indescribable. I would say that everyone in the theater was glancing around trying to figure out what was happening, but I was one of only three people in my theater. That's right, three. At a 12:20 Monday afternoon screening. Couldn't they have just premiered "Rollerball" on an airplane?)

Problem No. 2: The actual game
If you hadn't seen the original, you wouldn't have any idea what was happening during the game sequences. None. Impossible to follow. They even screwed up the actual game setting, loading it with needless motorcyles ramps and obstacles -- it looked like a McDonald's playground gone haywire. And if that wasn't enough, director John McTiernan filmed the game sequences so tight that you couldn't even see what was happening, let alone understand it. How could something be screwed up this completely and totally? I don't know.

Problem No. 3: The target audience
The only things that would have somewhat salvaged this debacle? More sex and more violence. And that stuff was in there last summer -- including a sex scene with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos -- until the test audiences skewered the movie, forcing the studio to delay the release for a few months so they could re-edit it for a PG-13 rating.

Exit the gratuitous violence (as amazing as this sounds, the original was more violent than the remake). Exit a full-frontal nude scene with Stamos (ouch -- tough loss there). Enter quicker edits, limp action scenes and a pounding musical score geared toward the average 15-year-old with the attention span of a tsetse fly. In other words, you have a loud, confusing, punchless, poorly acted, nonsensical, unredeeming movie that fails to entertain in any way, shape or form. Other than that, it's pretty good.

Rollerball
Confusing game action scenes don't make any sense unless you've seen the original "Rollerball."
Problem No. 4. The stars
The original "Rollerball" starred the great Jimmy Caan (a k a, Sonny Corleone and Brian Piccolo) at the height of his powers. Of course, in their infinite wisdom, the "Rollerball" producers geared the remake around Klein, a nice enough guy who seems determined to battle Freddie Prinze Jr. for the right to become this generation's Keanu Reeves. And there are some definite similarities. None of those three guys can act. All of them have the range of Jose Offerman. All of them resonate well with the ladies. And all of them are inherently likable.

One crucial difference though: The Keanu Experience works because he rates so highly on the Unintentional Comedy Scale (I wrote about this extensively in my "Hardball" review last September). And every time a newcomer struggles with a quintessential Keanu-in-his-prime part -- Paul Walker in "The Fast and the Furious" (a "Point Break" ripoff), Klein in "Rollerball," Prinze in "Summer Catch" -- we appreciate the Keanu Experience just a little bit more. Nobody plays the clueless hero better than him.

(Not to pull a Lloyd Bentsen here, but I know Keanu, I watched Keanu, I enjoyed Keanu ... Chris Klein, you're no Keanu. Not even close.)

Klein isn't the only problem. Poor LL Cool J (playing the Moonpie/sidekick role) is saddled with lines like "It's a place where even a doofus-ass white boy like you can get laid" (word up, LL). Jean Reno races through his scenes with "Does anyone know if Natalie Portman is up for 'The Professional 2'?"-type vigor. Stamos unleashes some sort of Russian-Dutch accent on us for reasons that can never be adequately explained (she apparently graduated summa cum laude from the Kevin Costner School for Bad Accents last spring). Wrestling promoter Paul Heyman (from ECW) plays the "Rollerball" announcer as if he's imitating the fat guy from Penn & Teller after 15 "Big One" coffees from Dunkin Donuts. UFC champ Oleg Tatarov has about 20 lines, which were 19 too many. There's an inexplicable cameo from the WWF's Shane McMahon. Don't make me go on.

Problem No. 5: The Unintentional Comedy Scale
Remember, I'm the same guy who owns "Karate Kid 3" on DVD and "Gymkata" on VHS ... if you're making me sit through an unwatchable movie, at least give me some comedic fodder. Seeing Romijn-Stamos struggling to pull off a Dutch accent (or was it Russian?) can only stretch so far.

  Maybe it wasn't the worst sports movie of all-time -- not when we have "Gymkata" to kick around -- but it certainly ranks among the most unlikable sports movies that I can remember. 
  

Give me at least one scene where Klein tries to cry, and at least three scenes where he tries to get angry. Give me Corey Haim and Corey Feldman as two of Klein's teammates. Give me Corbin Bernsen or Jim Belushi as the announcer. Give me William Shatner as the promoter. Give me Snoop Dogg instead of LL Cool J. Give me one of Those Guys (of the "Chong Li from 'Bloodsport' " variety) on an opposing team. Not to turn into Doctor Evil here, but throw me a frickin' bone, please.

Looking back, only one bright spot came from my whole "Rollerball" experience, and it hasn't even happened yet: the soon-to-be-unforgettable moment when I turn in my next ESPN.com expense report and "Rollerball: $6 movie ticket" is on there. Too bad they can't reimburse me for those two hours of my life that I'll never get back.

So where does "Rollerball" rank among the worst sports movies of all-time? There are four types of bad sports movies: The ones that suck in a perversely entertaining way ("SideOut," "Youngblood," "Over The Top"); the ones that suck but remain eminently watchable ("Amazing Grace & Chuck," "Mystery, Alaska," "Eddie"); the ones that just plain suck ("The Slugger's Wife," "Play It To The Bone," "Celtic Pride"); and the ones that suck beyond belief ("Cobb," "The Fan," "Bad News Bears Go to Japan," "Caddyshack 2").

Put it this way: "Rollerball" sucked beyond belief. Maybe it wasn't the worst sports movie of all-time -- not when we have "Gymkata" to kick around -- but it certainly ranks among the most unlikable sports movies that I can remember. Reprehensible, even.

And yes, to answer my question from the beginning of this column, apparently Hollywood is this dumb. But you knew that already.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.