Feb 13, 2002 at 12:00 am

This is a remake and it’s notable that the original Rollerball (1975), though a pretty mediocre film, had an A-list director (Norman Jewison) and star (James Caan), while this one is helmed by John McTiernan and stars Chris Klein. McTiernan has made some entertaining films (Predator, Die Hard, the unfairly maligned The 13th Warrior), but compared to Jewison he’s unpretentious to a fault, while Klein has done nothing particularly memorable aside from his turn as a dolt in Election.

The reason for this downgrading of the material is simple: The message of the film, which has to do with the commercial viability of violence, seemed serious enough way back then to attract some worthy talent. But by now it’s become such a wretched cliché, fodder for bored editorialists and ad hoc family groups, that unless you approach it with some fresh insight and a smidgen of creativity, it’s going to seem tedious or laughable or both. Like this film.

Set in some fictional central Asian country, Rollerball features long and incoherent sequences of its title sport, a combination of Roller Derby, pro wrestling and free-form mayhem. Our hero, Klein, has been persuaded to make some relatively fast money playing the game by his old pal Ridley (LL Cool J), but quickly becomes sidetracked when he learns that the team’s owner, Pertovich (Jean Reno), is purposely engineering accidents during televised play to hype the ratings. Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad, plot-wise, and there’s some fun to be had from watching Reno play a mood-swinging slimeball, but the problem is that cheap thrills shouldn’t be hard to follow. Most of the time during Rollerball, you don’t know what’s going on and you don’t care.

It all almost works on the so-inept-as-to-seem-avant-garde level, as when a crucial action sequence is inexplicably shot through a hazy green filter and some perverse denial of the pleasure principle seems to be in operation, but mostly it’s just a mess. Since McTiernan has shown himself to be the kind of able traffic director that a good action film requires, there’s probably a story behind how this feeble collage of kinetic tropes came to be assembled. But then again, who cares?

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].