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Roll Bounce

If you had asked me two hours ago if roller disco was dead I would have told you yes, absolutely, dead as a doornail, no questions asked. Ask me again, now that I’ve seen Roll Bounce and I would have to tell you yes, absolutely, dead as a doornail, no questions asked. The movie may not be able to resurrect interest in the now defunct skate-dancing fad, but at least it tosses some good vibes towards anyone who remembers a time when roller skates and Kool & The Gang went hand in hand.

The film hearkens back to a time when Atari, not the internet was the main form of indoor entertainment for kids trying to survive the doldrums of summer. Since “Pong” and “Asteroids” can only hold your attention so long, the youths of yesteryear turned to healthier pastimes, like playing basketball and staging water balloon fights. For one group of five friends the activity of choice is roller disco. When their neighborhood skating rink goes out of business, the boys head for higher ground: the swank uptown Sweetwater Roller Rink. Ringleader Xavier (known to his friends as ‘X’) and his buddies find themselves little fish in a big pond with a lot to prove. Abundant roller dancing scenes ensue.

The actors playing the five boys have a jovial, quirky chemistry that feels like it’s been torn straight out of an episode of “Fat Albert”. It’s amusing to watch them cut each other down in ways only adolescent boys can, but it gets predictable after the first few scenes and only serves to make the movie’s two hours feel more like three. Still, the story manages to avoid any familiar stereotypes in the group, choosing instead to invent its own: the half-white black kid, the half-Puerto Rican black kid, the sweet yet sensitive dope, the “I’m-going-to-be-Cedric-the-Entertainer-when-I-grow-up” and the cool but sweet natured leader, a perfect blend of Richie Cunningham and the Fonz on roller skates.

Upon arriving at the Sweetwater Rink, the boys are intimidated by the resident roller disco king known only as Sweetness. He and his gang of questionably effeminate sidekicks have an Elvis-like status, complete with roadies and towel girls. Offended that ‘hood skaters' like the five boys would consider themselves good enough to keep up, they regularly taunt the boys, showing them up on the rink. Xavier, his father, and his sister have been struggling since the death of their wife and mother, but it is the inspiration of his mother that drives Xavier to keep on skating. To prove their worth, X and the gang go head to head with Sweetness’ team of roller dancers in Sweetwater’s annual Skate Off. More roller dancing scenes ensue.

There’s something very sweet about Roll Bounce but it has nothing to do with the roller rink or the skating. In fact, you have to strip away all the disco dancing-on-wheels to get at what is most enjoyable about the story. The strained relationships between Xavier and his father and the interactions between he and his friends keep the otherwise mind-numbing seventies dance party flick staying alive. The tense moments come off a little like scenes from an after school special, but they work given the movie’s overall lightheartedness.

Director Malcolm D. Lee continues his hipster fetish (his last movie was the singularly successful Undercover Brother) by swinging his audience completely back to the seventies. The movie isn’t just set in the decade, it’s filmed like any other movie made back in the day. The soundtrack (score and songs), cinematography and acting styles all feel authentic, right down to the sepia-tainted coloration. While that’s all well and good for a movie released in 1978, it’s now nearly thirty years later and the concept feels like a novelty, not an innovation. Maybe it will have a different effect for folks wanting a little shot of nostalgia, but those like me, who spent the seventies in diapers, may not find it all that interesting.

Lil’ Bow Wow…excuse me, he’s just Bow Wow now (he should take a note from other singers-turned-actors and go with his real name)…takes an admirable swing at a serious role as X, catching some slack by mastering the after-school-special style of acting. Chi McBride is the real performance powerhouse in the film, deftly carrying most of the dramatic scenes without going over the top. Wayne Brady, Mike Epps and Charlie Murphy step up to the cameo plate with their own wacky brands of improvisational comedy, stealing the show any time someone’s not roller skating.

There’s really nothing about the movie’s story that ties it to roller disco. With a little pre-production adjustment the skating could easily have been substituted out for skateboarding or motocross racing. Since we’ve already had those two movies this year, I guess Lee and writer Norman Vance, Jr. did the right thing. Roll Bounce is still a half hour too long given its generally unexciting content, and most of it could have come out of the dance sequences. The movie has a fun soundtrack, but the rest of it should go ahead and roll bounce its way straight to the DVD rack with the other seventies films.