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Rollerball (1975): The Most Exciting Two Hours in Sports

Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975)

[originally posted 19Feb2002]

A rollerball player brandishes a wickedly-spiked glove on the movie poster.

Death Derby 2000.
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One of the facts Hollywood managed to establish during the sixties and seventies was that Norman Jewison knows how to make a good movie. Every once in a while, he came up with a great one. Rollerball may not have been one of the great ones, but it teeters on the brink every once in a while.

James Caan (in the 6 uniform) and Tom Skerritt (in the 9) pose for the camera in a still from the film.

I am relatively certain this is not what my wife has in mind when she talks about James Caan and Tom Skerritt in a 69.
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Rollerball takes social commentary and puts a silly veneer over the top. In this case, the world is run by giant corporations, each of which runs a city after the cessation of the Corporate Wars (about which we never find out much, but it’s hinted that a “takeover,” in this new world, means a lot more than a buyout. “Whatever happened to Indianapolis?”). There is no war, no crime, etc. In order to give the people of the world an outlet for their aggressions, the corporations invented rollerball, a kind of twisted combination of roller derby, basketball, and professional wrestling. Violence is not only endemic to the sport, but encouraged (stats freaks can rattle off such orgasmically-toned facts as “largest number of players incapacitated in a single game”). The undisputed master of the rollerball court is Jonathan E. (James Caan), who plays for Houston, a city run by he Energy Corporation. The face of the corporation, to us, is Bartholomew (John Houseman), a kind of father figure/Mephistopheles cross. After a victory in the quarterfinals, Bartholomew approaches Jonathan and asks him, privately, to retire. As Bartholomew says to the heads of the other corporations later in the film, the game is about the idea that the individual can never triumph over the group; Jonathan’s fame flies in the face of rollerball itself, and he must be stopped. Jonathan, of course, has other ideas.

A line of trees is set ablaze in a still from the film.

And nature wept.
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The genius of Jewison comes through mostly in not being overbearing with the social commentary. There’s just enough non-sports-related material in the film to give it weight (including a haunting scene where, at dawn after a drunken revelry, a number of partygoers wander out from the party and set fire to, presumably, the last trees in existence), but Jewison never forgets that the main focus of the film is the sport itself. There’s more coverage of sport in this movie than we’d see in anything until Oliver Stone gave us Any Given Sunday. By the end of it, we’ve become fans of a sport that doesn’t even exist, except in one unassuming dystopian film. And while that ending is a bit smarmy—Jewison did, at the end, pull his punches a bit too quickly–he earned it. ****

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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