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23rd March 2015 (UK)
James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn
Buy: Rollerball - [Blu-ray]
Rollerball falls smack into the middle of the 1970s. It’s remained one of the most revered, dystopian science fictions to come out in that decade. Over the passing years it seems to become increasingly prophetic, with it’s tale of corporate control run amok in a not so distant future, even though 40 years later, the future just looks like the film’s release year, 1975.
The film’s concept comes from the short story The Rollerball Murders by William Harrison, that first appeared in an issue of Esquire. He would eventually be hired to write the film’s screenplay. In Rollerball, violence has been eradicated from society and in it’s place corporations are running everything. In order to satisfy humanity’s urge for violence, the corporations have designed a game that is a mixture of roller derby and the gladiator games of Ancient Rome.
James Caan, hot off the heels of the enormous success of his role in The Godfather, plays the game’s star player, Jonathan E. The corporate executives however, want him to retire due to their desire to not have individuality on show. Caan has done some very momentous work through the ‘70s, which culminates, in many peoples’ eyes, in his most striking performance in Thief in 1981. Despite saying once in an interview that he "couldn't do much with the character" in regards to his character in Rollerball, he does embody the conflicted Jonathan E with characteristic virtuosity.
One of the film’s many intriguing aspects is the choice of Norman Jewison as director of the film. He is mostly well known for In the Heat of the Night, which is one of the few winners of the Best Film Oscar that still packs a punch. The other films he is mostly widely known for are as far field from the dystopian mayhem of Rollerball as you can get - they are the extremely early ‘70s musicals Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar. However, despite the difference in story, his work in the musicals has gave him a discipline over the dazzlingly shot scenes of the Rollerball game.
The film is not devoid of flaws; the largest problem it faces is a poor pacing that should have been tightened in the editing room. The film runs at 125 minutes but it lacks the focused editing of Jewison’s previous editor Hal Ashby, who had already started making the many tremendous films he directed throughout the 1970s. Jewison relied on Anthony Gibbs who was a British editor who edited many of the early British “New Wave” films. In these films, Gibbs did some pioneering work in the editing room, and was inspired by the cut-up method created by writers William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin for Nicolas Roeg on Performance and Walkabout. He takes a much more traditional route here and it suffers as a result.
It might not quite have the political gravitas of something like Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green, which holds up better than any other dystopian films that came out in ‘70s such as, The Omega Man or Logan’s Run (though I happen to enjoy both of those films very much). Rollerball has a powerful message on corporate greed and enough genre thrills to satisfy both the action-genre needs of some viewers, and the more intellectual needs of other viewers.
The new blu-ray is the most definitive package available in either the US or UK at the moment, and I don’t see that altering in the future. Commentary tracks by both Jewison and the writer, William Harrison are included. Arrow not only commissioned a newly filmed interview with James Caan, who reflects with fond memories on the film’s production, but also made a new featurette following some of the crew revisiting the film’s locations in Germany. Rollerball was one of, if not the first film to properly credit it’s stunt team which is reflected in the interview with the stuntman Craig B. Baxley. There is also an old documentary on the film, which was included in the old MGM Special Edition release, along with a vintage making of that was made at the time. This is all rounded off by trailers, TV spots, and a booklet with new writing on the film.