Rollerball Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Twilight Time
Directed by Norman Jewison
Written by William Harrison
1975, 125 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on October 27th, 2015
James Caan as Jonathan E.
John Houseman as Mr. Bartholomew
Maud Adams as Ella
John Beck as Moonpie
Moses Gunn as Cletus
Ralph Richardson as Librarian
Pamela Hensley as Mackie
Barbara Trentham as Daphne
Thank God for the multi-national corporations like the Houston-based Energy Corp. for making life so much easier. Everything you could possibly want is readily available, as the company anticipates your needs and makes certain that everyone remains happy and peaceful. War and poverty are a thing of the past and all relevant information has been digitized and catalogued for easy access. Corporate Executives like Mr. Bartholomew make it their job to ensure that the citizens are compliant by providing an exciting form of entertainment: the hugely popular full contact sport, Rollerball. This is an arena game in which a heavy metal ball fired at high speed from a cannon is caught by a player wearing a glove who then makes a lap around the banked circular track and attempts to throw the ball into a goal. Most players are on roller skates while others ride motorcycles providing interference from the opposing team in hopes of scoring points. The sport is incredibly violent, but if the ravenous masses demand blood, the corporations will serve it.
Longtime Houston Rollerball champion, Jonathan E., is to be honored with a lengthy televised career retrospective. It comes as a surprise when Mr. Bartholomew informs him that the executives have decided this is the time for Jonathan to announce his retirement from the game. He is reluctant at first, but when the boss is unable to offer a viable reason why they want him out, Jonathan becomes outright defiant. He vows not only to continue to play, but to win. The game is meant to discourage individual achievements by promoting teamwork and removing the need for a champion or worse, a hero. Jonathan’s refusal to comply with a direct order places himself and his teammates in physical danger when the corporate response is to make the sport more dangerous, even if it means the death of some players.
In 1973, William Harrison wrote the short story “Rollerball Murder” and later adapted it into a screenplay for director Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair). Set in the dystopian future (2018), Harrison’s work is at times prophetic with both the world of sports becoming a multi-billion dollar industry and the rise of international global corporations that control many aspects of society. It is not much of a leap to suggest that the top one percent of people in the position of power would wish to maintain their standing by discouraging the individual achievement of others and prevent the rise of a working class hero. If contemporary professional sports are essentially a watered-down version of the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome, it is entirely possible that the pendulum will make the return swing and a game like Rollerball would become a ratings bonanza.
James Caan (The Killer Elite) stars as Rollerball champion / fan favorite Jonathan E., who becomes a liability after refusing to do as he is told and must now outwit and outmaneuver those against him. Caan really shines in this role as the troubled celebrity and he gives a highly physical performance that includes many of his own stunts. John Houseman (The Fog), a man who conveys menace without raising his voice, is intimidating as the icy Mr. Bartholomew, proving once again what an incredible talent he was. John Beck (Audrey Rose) is Moonpie, the complacent voice of reason who sees no reason to rock the boat while the athletes are enjoying the sweet life. Moses Gunn (Amityville II: The Possession) plays the sympathetic Cletus, a man who wants to help his friend, but knows better than to bite the hand that feeds. Caan has a pivotal scene with the great Ralph Richardson (Tales from the Crypt) as the World’s Librarian, a man who doesn’t seem to mind that books are a thing of the past and the information they contained is now censored and occasionally lost entirely by an impartial computer system. If Jonathan has a weakness, it is his love for ex-wife Ella, and when you get a glimpse of Maud Adams (The Man with the Golden Gun) in the role, you’ll understand why. She is gorgeous and elusive, but not entirely trustworthy and Jonathan knows it, but wants her back all the same.
Rollerball is a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving up individuality for comfort and the threat of corporations controlling the flow of information. Norman Jewison quickly establishes the world in which a corporate theme replaces the national anthem at a sporting event and the World’s Librarian barely notices when the entire collection of works of the thirteenth century is accidentally erased. The social commentary is strong and the cast is up to the challenge, but the film comes to life when the titular game is played. Editor Anthony Gibbs (Dogs of War) ratchets up the tension as he masterfully constructs one brutal action sequence after another. If Jewison and Harrison are careful to walk the line in their anti-violence fable, Gibbs shows little restraint as he delivers an adrenaline rush to the material. This is an exciting movie with a formidable message and if you have somehow missed it, do yourself a favor and get your head in the game!
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and free of any intrusive dirt or scratches, Rollerball scores a solid transfer that easily deflects any signs of the film’s age. There is a lot to cheer about here as colors are striking, black levels are deep and there is plenty of fine detail in both faces and wardrobe.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track roars to life during gameplay and is surprisingly immersive as players bash each other into the ground while others race past on motorcycles. There is a lot of activity in the rear channels that places viewers in the middle of the action, but never at the expense of overpowering the dialogue. Purists will be happy to know the original audio mix is preserved in the included DTS-HD MA 2.0 track.
English subtitles are provided for anyone in need.
There are two audio commentaries included on this disc, both ported over from earlier releases. The first features director Norman Jewison and the second, writer William Harrison. Each track provides a lot of information with the latter geared more toward the writing process, but Jewison fills his recording with countless anecdotes from numerous aspects of the production. Both men are guilty of lapsing into silence as they watch the picture, but fortunately this is not excessive as there is a lot to say about the making of this film.
The vintage promotional behind-the-scenes featurette From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle (8 minutes) shot in 1975 offers interviews with members of the cast and crew and includes footage from the set of rehearsals and the filming process.
Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball (1998, 25 minutes) is a highly informative and entertaining look back at the origins of the film and the work that went into creating it. Members of the cast, crew and stunt team share their memories of the project.
The film score is presented in an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track for your listening pleasure.
The original theatrical trailer is included with a pair of TV spots showcasing the marketing of the film.
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