Starring: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Ralph Richardson
Running Time: 125 mins
Special Features: Return To The Arena: The Making Of Rollerball, Bloodsports with James Caan, The Fourth City locations featurette, The Bike Work: Craig R.Baxley, From Rome To Rollerball EPK, Commentary: Norman Jewison, Commentary: William Harrison, Isolated Music & Effects, Trailer, TV Spots and more…
Sport is often described as the opium of the masses. If one movie took that idea to its logical extent it was ROLLERBALL, bringing audiences an unusual blend of rough-housing and corporate satire in the turbulent mid-Seventies. European viewers lapped up the social commentary while Americans craved the thrills of the invented sport itself. Now this sinister tale of the future arrives on Blu-ray – where every studded fist and bloodied face is presented with crystal clarity – and people can judge the result all over again.
James Caan stars as Jonathan E, the world’s most famous player of the game. Rollerball, part-hockey, part-football, part-motorcyle rally, has brought him a life of comfort and the occasional cracked rib. But when corporate sponsor John Houseman urges him to retire and the spectacle becomes increasingly brutal, Jonathan is forced to question his existence outside the arena, and at that point his life changes forever.
It’s one of those films, like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE of the same period, that’s remembered as obscenely violent, whereas actually not much is shown. The blood is heavy in the atmosphere. That impending sense of dread as Jonathan asks awkward questions of his detached paymasters. When the nasty stuff does happen it’s isolated and shocking, such as the moment Caan turns on his courtesan. Everything leads up to the infamous team clash in Tokyo before a baying crowd, after which events spiral out of control.
ROLLERBALL is a pretty decent sports movie. As revealed in accompanying documentary Return To The Arena, director and dramatic heavyweight Norman Jewison spent a lot of time working out the basics and it shows. It’s a game that truly lives and breathes. The excitement and danger exude even forty years on. Jewison and writer William Harrison sought to draw comparisons with Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome and to this end a timeless classical musical backdrop was employed. Taking a cue from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, the archaic quality generates a chill. There’s an interesting remark by Jewison about his use of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for the opening. It was a piece little-known outside cultural circles. Post-ROLLERBALL, the media have put it everywhere.
Caan’s central performance conveys the balance between everyman and tragic figure that Jonathan embodies, and Jewison contrasts the athlete with the fusty presences of Houseman and Sir Ralph Richardson (playing the “World’s Librarian”, who has his own moment of madness kicking a supercomputer). Frequently mumbling, Caan is the gifted child at the centre of this clean, creepy hierarchy of hookers and head honchos, where the populace is expected to accept every decision from the parent administration without comment.
The issues the film examines are relevant today, perhaps more than ever, from the use of entertainment as social control through to the dissolving of books onto a hard drive – here powered by water, but not a million miles from the nebulousness of a cloud. The message is laid on a bit thick at times, and maybe some things would have been better not spelled out in big letters. Overall however the production has things to say in spades.
Special features-wise, you don’t get much that wasn’t on the DVD release, though important new sections include Blood Sports With James Caan, a fresh interview with the actor. The commentaries are imported from previous releases – one from Jewison (talkative) and one from Harrison (less so).
Arguably the standout moment in ROLLERBALL occurs after Jonathan’s friend is critically injured during the game. Instead of tending to his pal, the star player ties his skates on and gets right back out on the track. The energy from the subjugated crowd is everything. In this case it’s the difference between the saving of humanity or its profit-fuelled doom.