We are in a strategy meeting of the Houston rollerball team before the world championship tournament semifinal game with Tokyo.
" Tokyo uses karate and other martial arts," says a Houston scout. "So I will review this technique, emphasizing death blows."
"Aw, we get the same lecture every year," loudly interrupts Moonpie, a handsome Munsterish player. "All we gotta do is hit them guys in the ganglia. Drive their jawbones up into that mess of nerves. Go out there and git them little fellas!"
So it goes in the locker room of the future, at least the one in the movie Rollerball. The game (SI, April 21) could be described as the misbegotten child of Roller Derby and Pearl Harbor and is played, to use the term loosely, on a banked board track between teams of 10 men: seven on skates and three on mini-bikes that look as much like Beretta pistols as Lambretta motor scooters. The bikes ostensibly serve as speeding slingshots for the skaters, but they also are useful for such things as driving between an opponent's legs from behind at 40 mph. The objective seems to be to wipe out the opposing players by skating over their faces and jumping on their bellies. And hitting them in the ganglia, of course.
Rollerball takes place early in the 21st century. Corporations have taken over the world and are doing Orwellian things. Sport, as we know it, has disappeared—"I remember someone once telling me about the National Football League and the World Cup," laments one veteran. Rollerball has been invented in order to demonstrate the futility of individual effort.
Enter Jonathan E. ( James Caan), super-rollerballer for Houston, which makes him a marked man because he doesn't fit into the anti-ego corporate scheme. What's more, he doesn't think much of corporations or Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), who carries the message from the omniscient Executive Directorate, a Politburo in pinstripes, that Jonathan is to retire before the Big Game, if he knows what's good for him. Jonathan can't be expected to know that because Only the corporation knows it. So Jonathan bucks the system.
We get to the World Final and, predictably, after the other 18 players have been wiped out, Jonathan the individual silently squares off against the last player from New York, who of course symbolizes the corporate state.
There's really not much more serious violence here than in a good Three Stooges comedy—mostly a lot of head-spinning closeups of body blocks, gang tackles, drop kicks, kidney punches and elbowed eyeballs, accompanied by whopping and whacking and bopping and grunching sounds and a lovely musical score by Andr� Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, heavy on the sepulchral organ melodies. Caan is perfectly cast as the hero who seems equal part antihero, and Houseman's sinisterness is smoothly subtle. Norman Jewison's fast-fire direction leads Rollerball's action, and that is what this movie is all about. Fortunately, it isn't the kind of film that needs a heavy plot. Few people who see Rollerball will care what happens between whomps anyhow.