Blu-ray Review: Rollerball (1975) - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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Rollerball began life as a short story by William Harrison called “Roller Ball Murder” that initially ran in Esquire magazine. It has since been adapted as a feature film twice, most recently in a disastrous 2002 version directed by John McTiernan. The 1975 original was directed by Norman Jewison, with the benefit of Harrison having adapted his own story. This was his first screenplay, part of a career offshoot that didn’t result in many film-related projects before his death in October 2013. James Caan underplays to the point of non-acting as Jonathan E., star player of the titular sport. Rollerball is a dangerous, fast-paced, full-contact combination of roller derby and hockey (among other things) and was designed to help stamp out acts of individual heroism or leadership. The corporate-run government seeks to force Jonathan into retirement.

With a solid cult following firmly in place, Jewison’s film is set in the fascist future of 2018. The public is drugged into lockstep submission. Sport itself has become something of a symbol of conformity. The government, personified by Mr. Bartholomew (a droll John Houseman), doesn’t need a household name like Jonathan to stand out from the pack. They’ve bought and sold the rather dim-witted athlete, going so far as to reassign his wife Ella (Maud Adams) to a corporate bigwig. Sure they provided Jonathan with a new female companion, but he’s constantly treated like a piece of property. When met with resistance on Jonathan’s part, the all-powerful Energy Corporation begins dismantling the established rules, allowing the “team sport” of Rollerball to quickly evolve into an even more punishing, treacherous, and deadly game.

Rollerball cover (168x220).jpgGood ideas are laced throughout Rollerball’s 125 minutes, but Jewison seems intent on rendering the whole affair as a pretentious, humorless slog. It doesn’t help that Caan seems almost lobotomized here, which certainly could be taken as a point in and of itself. The actor reportedly stated some time later that he did what he could with an underwritten character. Considering how commanding of a performer Caan usually is, it’s hard not to feel he was miscast here as a corporate puppet. On the plus side, Jewison does stage the game sequences convincingly, goosing the audience with periodic boosts to the overall sluggish pacing.

Veteran cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, DP of Rollerball, turned 101 earlier in 2014. Perhaps most popularly known as the director of photography on the first three Indiana Jones movies, Slocombe’s work on Rollerball has been well-preserved on this limited Blu-ray. Occasionally given an intentionally stylized, soft-focus look, the image is consistently clean. Fine grain structure is intact, resulting in a transfer that retains the mid-‘70s period appearance. Audio is presented in both DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0, with the surround mix offering a predictably more visceral experience. The actual Rollerball matches are sonically lively, but all other aspects sound great too. AndrĂ© Previn’s score is offered up as a DTS-HD MA 2.0 isolated track.

Two commentary tracks highlight the extras. One features director Norman Jewison and the other is with writer William Harrison. Video-based supplements include a pair of vintage promotional featurettes: “From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle” and “Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball.” TV spots and a trailer round things out. Julie Kirgo’s booklet essay is a typically thoughtful affair, one with the potential to lend appreciation to a film that seems cold, distant, and difficult to like (Rollerball remains all those things, but the essay offers a welcome guide).

As with all of Twilight Time’s Blu-rays, Rollerball was released as a limited, 3,000-copy edition. It has subsequently sold out and is now trading hands amongst collectors. For information about currently available Twilight Time titles, explore their catalog on their official distributor’s site, Screen Archives.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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