Blu-ray review: Rollerball

Starring: James Caan, John Houseman
Director: Norman Jewison

rollerball 2

Even the film’s biggest fans would have to admit there’s a limit to how seriously you can take men on roller skates, but all the same Rollerball is a surprisingly sober and thoughtful movie, and far less kitsch and silly than you might expect. James Caan gives one of his most sympathetic performances as Jonathan E, a shy, mild-mannered team captain who rises to be the people’s champ from the toils of a brutal, debasing game whose sole purpose is to ensure that there are no heroes. Scared of what they’ve created, the multinational corporations who run the game – and the whole world – want him to quit, but he stubbornly digs in his heels, refusing to abandon his teammates.

The fact that his rebellion springs from a simple, universally human impulse – loyalty to his team – is one of the script’s key strengths, and the other striking thing about Rollerball is the way it foreshadows the cold cynicism of ’80s, with its chic parties thronged by pill-popping yuppies. A heavyweight soundtrack of Shostakovich, Bach and Albinoni underlines director Norman Jewison’s artistic ambitions, but he also brews up some genuine visceral thrills in the action scenes (he used a cameraman on roller skates to snatch some startling close-ups). Visually, too – bar some big lapels and flat-fronted trousers – the film stands up well, thanks to a clever use of futuristic locations in the Olympic Park in Munich. Maybe because so much of it was shot either in Germany or at the UK’s Pinewood studios, Rollerball feels surprisingly European at times – there’s a haunting scene where some drunken partygoers set fire to a stand of trees with a laser pistol which seems to have strayed in from a sci-fi Fellini movie. 7/10

On the whole, this is a nice, clean transfer. There’s an occasional softness, but in general the minimalist production design, all steel, concrete and glass, comes up very sharply. Skin tones are also very impressive – some of the close-ups have great presence, and there’s almost too much detail in some of the hairy-chested shower and massage scenes. 8/10

EXTRASrollerball 1
We hear from Norman Jewison and screenwriter William Harrison in a 25-min featurette which presumably dates to the late ’90s. Harrison reveals that Caan was cast for his athleticism – he had been wrestling steers in rodeos – and Jewison talks about how the film did well in Europe but less well in the US: “In America they wanted to play the game!” In a new 11-min piece, Caan reminisces fondly about the male bonding that went on among the skaters as they rehearsed on set for two weeks, evolving the game through trial and error, and he divulges that there was talk of making a sequel. For more insights into the stunts, there’s a 17-min interview with one of the men brought in to ride motorbikes for the game. There’s also an excellent 18-min piece revisiting the Munich locations, including the Audi Dome – a basketball court used for the arena – and the BMW Museum and Tower. In addition, this release comes with two audio commentaries, again dating from the late ’90s. Norman Jewison’s audio com is a little stiff and formal but very informative, and he explains the rules of Rollerball, which is handy. In his commentary, Harrison talks about his original short story on which the film was based – apparently he wrote it in April and had a production deal by December. 9/10


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