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Five Points on John McTiernan's "Rollerball"

Not quite the gimcrack it's made out to be, _Rollerball_ expands through layers of unreality towards a truly "Hawksian" way of seeing.
Christopher Small
“In our [film school] textbook we learned that the films we loved the most were badly made” —Raúl Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema.
1. The most obvious facet Rollerball shares with Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995), The 13th Warrior (1999), or The Hunt For Red October (1990) is the firm hold its director has over all the space and objects contained within its frame. John McTiernan is a master filmmaker, but a modest one. A visually intuitive and undervalued craftsman working within the limitations of commercial American cinema in the late 20th Century, what separates McTiernan's films from those of his contemporaries is the level of dexterity with which he constructs and manipulates space. He emphasises the principal traits of a character as if they were audio-visual rhythms, and assembles, frames and choreographs images as nodes in the various sequential helixes that make up his films. Though perhaps not McTiernan’s greatest entire, composite feature film, Rollerball certainly is—for me—some kind of entrancing B-craftwork: a triumph of formalism and direction over script and production. The work of a conductor exhibiting total control over a symphony of wild images, even as that symphony threatens to descend into uncoordinated abstraction. To Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001), Rollerball is perfect kin—exquisitely crafted though simultaneously lunkheaded and tasteless.
2. A consistent symptom of McTiernan’s approach to filmmaking that could prove to be fatally problematic is especially prevalent in Rollerball: a certain eagerness to reduce narrative and socio-political subtext that could’ve existed within a such-and-such “okay”/ “intriguing” story (and does, in the somewhat pedestrian original), into a leaner, cheaper, more economic style of storytelling (if we discount at least two of his densest works, Basic [2003] and Nomads [1986], which were created for, I think, entirely different reasons). He fills these voids with overtures and battles, energetic parades of space and grand climaxes. As gratifying as a $75 million Comment On Today’s Society can be, for an artisan like McTiernan, these elements are largely ignored, and it is the geometry of the scenes themselves that are mined for all their worth—a cinema of cartography, you could say. Particularly in the scenes that are set in the rollerball stadium, the shaping of figures and movements into a larger scope and structure sometimes simply take the form of a few ephemeral moments, like cutaways and zooms and tracking shots. The difference is, with Rollerball and not The Hunt For Red October, the ferocity and intensity of the sequences ape the savage, often violent, nature of the on screen movement—almost to the point that the images seem to come unhinged, as if they'll at any moment shatter and tumble out of the screen.
3. As the rollerballers engage in combat with the other teams—within the limits of the rules of the game or otherwise—a total clarity of space gives the action a great sense of coordination, yet the disjointed moments that are scattered throughout disturb this elegance of form. This is a deliberate move on the director's part. Rollerball—being the runt of the oeuvre—is the only John McTiernan film to incorporate the possibilities of such a jagged but formally controlled visual aesthetic. Scenes develops in more and more erratic ways as the film progresses. Many images are banjaxed by axial cuts that exist in a great many of his other films, but they never took on the viciousness that they do here.
4. For me, the McTiernan paradigm—one I like—is held in a certain lucidity of authorship, a discernible source of brilliance in, for the most part, totally conventional movies. It is through the forcefulness and originality of McTiernan's vision that passable multi-writer action screenplays can bloom into sophisticated thrillers, and it’s his direction that gets a decent premise to bloom into a great movie. Rollerball would be a trifle in the hands of a lesser director: it’s his steady, guiding hand that brings to life the arias of the stadiums, hallways, clubs, and instills urgency in the subfusc night-time car chases. The actors have limited appeal, but McTiernan invigorates their flatness with energy, McTiernan invigorates their flatness with energy. He pins down their essences and deploys them as narrative tools: LL Cool J is just as much a piece of the image as anything else.
5. Maturing in artistic privacy for many years, under the cloak of big-budget filmic syntax, McTiernan is the true maestro of action cinema. The sleek plots and wise-cracking characters in his films are handled with the scrupulousness of an artist obsessed with perfection. A man who conducts opera with the movements of conventional narratives. McTiernan is a hypnotist: using the devices of the cinema to create sleek, patterned surfaces, whilst experimenting with abstract space below. That Rollerball represents so many stale, mundane conventions of 2000s studio filmmaking is all the more of a reason to admire the way in which it does succeed as flat-out beauty.


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