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In a corporation-run future, all violence is distilled into one outlet: Rollerball, a melding of basketball, the roller derby, and Roman gladiator battles. The Michael Jordan of this sport is Jonathan E. (James Caan), a good-natured soul whose been leading the Houston team to victory for the past 10 years. Jonathan is good...a little too good for the comfortability of the corporate executives, especially Bartholomew (John Houseman). They want their star to give up the game, but he's not letting go so easily. But one point his bosses are very strict on is that they make the rules - he just dies by them.
The main attractions here are the spectacular game sequences. Now, I'm no fan of sports, and the whole macho violence aspect of them really turns me off. However, director Norman Jewison directs this to entice anybody, with lively shots and breathless editing. Sure, things are violent as hell, but there's heart and soul out in that ring. Once I figured out how Rollerball was played, I was in there, rooting for Houston as if I had a box seat.
So, it's a damn shame that the actual narrative doesn't quite match up. The whole conspiracy is rather dull. It's obvious from the get-go why the corporations want Jonathan out - but he spends a lot of time trying to find out. Frankly, the film could have used a strong shot of intrigue in the drama sequences. There's an indictment of corporate monopolies in there somewhere, but it's either too obscure or way too obvious to bother with.
Part of the problem is that Caan is way too laid back. He performs his part admirably, but you never get the sense that this is a man whose seen all manner of atrocity out on the playing field. He only seems like a veteran because he plays well, not due to his attitude. He's eaten alive and spit out in his scenes with John Houseman, who overacts with villainous glee. Ralph Richardson, in his brief and really eccentric role, also manages to put Caan in the background.
Something that's actually fairly irritating is that all the females in the movie are either unlikable or just barely there (and most of the time both). The most prominent female is Maud Adams (later to be a Bond girl in Octopussy), who is terribly wooden. Luckily, her role is brief. Unluckily, it should have added to the narrative and it didn't.
Still, the game itself never fails to amaze, with all of its daring and bloody action. This is especially true of the final game, which should go down in film history simply for its powerful look at the uncompromising human spirit in the face of overpowering forces. I was transfixed to the screen, and threatened bodily harm to somebody who tried to disturb me during those intense final minutes.
I think it really says something when a guy with a disdain for sports really enjoys a movie that's main focus is physical competition. Therefore, despite its many flaws, I'm recommending Rollerball to everybody. The DVD is cheap at just 10 bucks, and it comes complete with a director's commentary (and a really stupid "put the screenshots in the right order" non-game). Seriously, check it out. There are some places where you'd pay more to see the remake just once.