Five Points on John McTiernan's "Rollerball"

“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, The 13th Warrior or The Hunt For Red October is the firm hold its director has over all the space and objects contained within its frame. John McTiernan is a master filmmaker, but one of modesty. A visually intuitive, undervalued, and loving craftsman working within the limitations of commercial, late 20th Century American cinema; what I think 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 (1990), 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 co-ordination, 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 his vision that passable multi-writer action screenplays can bloom into great thrillers. 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, works them in with everything else. 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. 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.

Responses

21 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • rado

    Excellent! He and Martin Campbell are hugely underrated.

  • Billy Congo

    Or entirely redundant, since the original is a classic.

  • Robert W Peabody III

    “It’s his direction that gets a decent premise to bloom into a great movie.” (4.)

    How is it a great movie?

    Here are some of the ways you described it:

    1. " Though perhaps not McTiernan’s greatest entire, composite feature film."
    2. “…presenting an intensified, disjointed form that imbues it’s shallow subject with immediacy, terror, urgency.”
    3. “Rollerball—being the runt of the oeuvre—stands separate in many aspects…”
    4. “The actors have limited appeal. McTiernan invigorates their flatness with energy, pins down their essences, deploys them as narrative tools: LL Cool J is just as much a piece of the image as anything else.”
    5.“That Rollerball represents so many stale, mundane conventions of 2000s studio filmmaking…”

  • Christopher Small

    Frankly, Robert, I don’t think that being great is synonymous with being flawless, and many of the points you list are either iterations of that premise, or attempts to put into context the areas where the film is indeed tarnished by its limitations.

  • John Lehtonen

    Yes! You actually did it! Bravo sir!

    Suffice to say that I agree with just about everything in your post.

    Also, great shout-out to Ghosts of Mars, or, ass I like to think of it, Dissolves.

  • Bobby Wise

    Hey, was that the testicle collector from Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” briefly in that clip?

  • Bobby Wise

    “_____ is a hypnotist: using the devices of the cinema to create sleek, patterned surfaces, whilst experimenting with abstract space below. That _____ 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, simultaneously, succeed as flat-out beauty.”

    Don’t you guys say the exact same thing about Bay, Mann, and Scott?

  • Zach Campbell

    I remember seeing this in theaters a decade ago and writing a brief paper about it for a college composition course – I think I argued something along the lines that, incoherently and unintentionally, the film still manages to present a clumsy but extensive and multi-faceted anti-capitalism critique. (This involved something about the prevalence of the color red, maybe – in weird coincidental rather than overtly “thematized” ways? If I dig up the paper I’ll let you know, Christopher.) Anyway thanks for pointing the spotlight on a very strange movie whose flaws are fairly rich …

  • Christopher Small

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the Marxist symbolism is conscious, Zach. McT is an intelligent guy, and from the little of what I’ve read of Claude Monnier’s book-length exegesis of the director, it seems like you aren’t alone in your observation. I did try working in something to that effect at one point, but it didn’t particularly mesh with the formalist gushing. I’d love to read your paper if you find it!

  • Mac

    I’m less interested in the myriad ways this turdbomb of a movie can be wrestled into something profound (you can do this with any movie, really – The Whoopee Boys as proto-OWS anarchist cinema whose flat affect and vulgar mis-en-scene deftly reflect class inequities during the heyday of Reagan’s Morning in America) and more interested in the phenomena of why hack directors and the garbage they produce are used as tabula rasas for young film writers on the make. Is it because they movies in questions offer little to no resistance, like a compliant sorority bimbo hazed out of her gourd on roofies? Can someone please explain it to me? Seriously. Because I do find it kind of entertaining when writers like Christopher Small and Uncas Blythe try to project their own intelligence onto directors like McTiernan and Bay. I find it kind of sweet, actually. I just don’t get it. Why? Why waste your time loving something that doesn’t have the capacity to love you back? Be careful, Christopher. John McTiernan, in the end, will only break your heart.

  • Christopher Small

    Thanks for the words of warning, Mac, but don’t you think that, ultimately, every hack needs a chance to love, and to be loved? You’ll see! This is only the beginning – I have the greatest fraud of them all in my sights next! Roll on Fassbinder!

  • Mac

    No. I think clockpunchers and crankturners like McTiernan get exactly the amount of respect they deserve, and it comes in the form of a huge sum of money that allows them their condos in Barbados and discrete handjobs in the back of the Soho House (and yes, a handjob can be discrete) from Page 3 girls. I just don’t get the championing of champions, the elevation of the elevated. Not my style. How long before someone is trying to persuade me that Chris Columbus is underappreciated? Where does it end? Ken Kwapis as the true heir of Truffaut? Nancy Meyers on the same continuum as Dorothy Arzner?

  • Bobby Wise

    But we can’t write McTiernan off so easily. This is a guy that has made some great films. However, judging from the clip presented, “Rollerball” looks rather forgettable. I don’t ever remember it being released. That being said, I’m not familiar with the original either. And for the record, I’ve only tried to watch one Fassbinder and I couldn’t even make it all the way through.

  • Christopher Small

    Mac,

    I don’t care if the guy directing is the ghost of King Leopold II, if he’s good, he’s good.

  • Billy Congo

    In our [film criticism] textbook we learned that the articles we loved the most were badly made.

    1. Start with the real premise – “In our [film school] textbook we learned that the films we loved the most were badly made”. Why? Because of Central Conflict Theory. We’re trying to move beyond CCT. So to do that we overpraise a film that uses CCT as its core?

    2. There is no sense of history for this film. Where did it come from? How does it compare to the original? This is a problem you see particularly with the younger film critics. They haven’t even seen the originals.

    3. Damning with faint praise as Mr. Peabody points out. So you admit that the movie isn’t very good plot wise, but it’s pretty?

    4. Comparing the director to film legends. Because of genre and aesthetics. The problem is that Lubitsch, Hawks and Ford understood story, but they don’t meet the high standards of Mr. Ruiz either because they’re practitioners of the dreaded CCT.

    5. That means we’re left with eye candy. Fine. Why try to elevate it beyond what it is? As Mac said, “Where does it end?” Why not actually talk about a film that tries to go beyond CCT?

  • Christopher Small

    Billy,

    I didn’t mean to deploy Ruiz as the signature influence on this piece of writing. Rollerball, for all it’s pleasures, is no City of Pirates. However, I think it’s fair to say that I never claimed that what I found most compelling about this film was its plot (I don’t), or it’s history (I don’t). This bit of writing is not this, that or the other. What it does consist of is a reasonably sobre argument for the formal elements of this film, the sturdiness of the visual style, the use of space and editing, etc. This does not constitute “prettiness” – far from it – because this is an ugly looking film. Its beauty is in the strength of the construction, scene to scene, sequence to sequence. I therefore think its unfair for you to call me out on not addressing CCT or the movie’s troubled production / inception as a remake in a piece of writing which is explicitely interested in other matters.

  • Bobby Wise

    But you can’t wash your hands of the matter so easily, and you need to defend your piece with more cognizance. If you didn’t mean to deploy Ruiz as a signature influence then you probably should not have used him as the opening quote. It’s a great quote, by the way, and you should stand firmly behind it and what it signifies. It’s also within the bounds of fair play to call out the lack of context in the article (e.g. the original “Rollerball”). You respond that your focus on formal elements does not constitute “prettiness” yet the final line in your piece reads that the film succeeds as “flat-out beauty”. So what are you saying? This is a nice, readable short essay you have written but it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.

  • Daniel Kasman

    Instead of picking at the piece perhaps it would be more prudent to pick at the film, as this isn’t a composition class. The Ruiz quote is clearly there as a tonal joke considering the maligned reputation of this film. So let’s talk about the film. Christopher certainly is.

  • Billy Congo

    You know how the box for your opinion says “Please be courteous.” The truly courteous thing to do would be to say “Nice job!” and move on.

    You read a piece and you have questions. What am I looking for in a piece of critical writing? Why does he mention B when he already said A? How does one learn to be a better writer, a clearer writer if all they get is “Nice job!”

    Indeed it is that very act of listening to criticism and being able to evaluate it that allows us to grow. Not all criticism is valid. He states that he wanted to concentrate on the new film. Knowing that, he may choose to put something to that effect in future articles. But for film buffs who have seen the original they might want to know what his opinion was on that film.

    Daniel, I don’t think you need to defend him. This just gives him something to think about, and maybe it’s valid or not.

  • sam

    I like that the Notebook has become a bastion of vulgar auteurism (c.f. Cinema Scope), with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky as bulwark. Someone’s always going to need to pick through the rubbish bin of Hollywood cinema.

  • Daniel Kasman

    Vulgar and clean — we’re for them all!

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