The Bottom Shelf

Robert Altman’s Quintet deserves a mention here, if only because it’s so unlikely there will ever be another reason to mention it. Altman has made some of the all-time great motion pictures, including M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but as aficionados of the director know, he also has a fondness for the weed. Thus the Altman filmography is littered with projects that must have seemed like really good ideas when the auteur was baked, such as the perplexing O.C. & Stiggs (an adaption of a National Lampoon story) or this ill-considered excursion into science fiction.

QuintetTo his credit, Altman managed to concoct the least appealing post-apocalyptic society ever depicted on film, which is surely some sort of achievement. Set in a future Ice Age, Quintet is so white with snow and glare, you will notice streaks of dust on your television screen that were hitherto imperceptible. To give it that extra “futuristic” edge, Altman has smeared his camera lens with enough lube to fuel a three-day orgy at Elliott Gould’s place. The remaining inhabitants of this dreary age reside in the ruins of some sort of sewage treatment plant or perhaps trendy industrial-style disco. Everything is frozen and there are bodies strewn about here and there, which doesn’t seem to bother anyone overmuch - they’re all too busy playing Quintet.

Quintet doesn’t really qualify as a sport, unless you’re one of those dweebs who petitioned the student council to let participation in the chess club count towards a varsity letter. It’s a board game of sorts, in which five players move randomly shaped pieces around a game board until a “killing order” is arranged. The winner of this portion of the game goes on to face a sixth man in the final round. (In the film’s publicity materials, Quintet is described as a “macabre form of backgammon.” Altman’s financial backers apparently rejected his initial pitch, a “grisly variation on Twister.”) The game itself doesn’t look like all that much fun, but since there’s not much else to do besides club seals or freeze to death and get eaten by dogs, everyone plays it continuously anyway.

“To give it that extra “futuristic” edge, Altman has smeared his camera lens with enough lube to fuel a three-day orgy at Elliott Gould’s place.”

The best players qualify for the tournament, which is a real honor, since all the losers are actually killed. If there’s a plot to Quintet (and I’m not conceding there is), it has something to do with Paul Newman assuming the identity of a dead player in order to… well, I have no idea, really. If forced to make a guess, I’ll go with “exact a terrible vengeance.” This entails Newman subjecting himself to any number of Ed Woodian speeches about the five sides of life and the five levels of the universe and the void. “The emptiness I’m speaking of is the total horror of madness.” Shit like that. In the end, Newman trudges alone into the smeary existential wasteland. I like to think he found another settlement where the inhabitants pass the time playing a morbid version of Parcheesi.

A somewhat more stimulating futuristic death sport can be found in The Blood of Heroes, a relic of the classic era of Rutger Hauer movies that would have gone straight to video in a just universe. Set in a post-apocalyptic world cobbled together from a Mad Max yard sale, the film posits Hauer, Joan Chen and Vincent D’Onofrio as the scruffy underdogs in an ultraviolent team sport.

Blood of HeroesThe game is called “jugging,” and it’s probably close to what Vince McMahon had in mind when he launched the XFL. The object is to carry a bloodied dog skull from one end of the playing field to the other, then impale it on a spike. The other team tries to stop you through various means, such as whacking you in the face with a chain or clubbing you in the knees with a drainpipe. Meanwhile, your teammates try to protect you by tackling your opponents and beating their heads against rocks. The time is kept by a scrawny fellow who tosses stones at a gong; if no one scores by the time 100 stones have gonged, the game is over.

Heroes is really the story of a simple country girl (Chen) trying to make her dreams come true by biting off ears and taking down guys three times her size by kneeing them in the nuts. She’s scrappy and plucky enough to want to take on a big city league team, even though no amateur team has ever lasted longer than 26 stones. I won’t give away the inspirational ending, but I must express some surprise that Chen’s pre-game taunt - “Come and kiss me, fuck-fuck!” - never caught on as an oft-quoted catchphrase.

Speaking of oft-quoted catchphrases, remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to work his signature “I’ll be back” line into every movie in which he appeared? It turns up in The Running Man, the prescient sci-fi thriller directed by noted visionary Paul Michael “Starsky” Glaser.

Why “prescient”? Of all the movies discussed here, The Running Man is the one that most adroitly anticipates the current reality television craze. It’s like a special two-hour edition of Fear Factor featuring guest stars from WWE Smackdown. Schwarzenegger plays an ex-cop who has been framed for the mass slaughter of innocent civilians. His sentence: to appear on America’s number one game show, The Running Man. Released into a game zone covering 40 city blocks, he and his cronies must evade the Stalkers - comic book executioners with names like Buzzsaw and SubZero - in order to escape with their freedom and fabulous prizes.

Despite a modicum of wit in script and concept, The Running Man really only makes sense if you take it on faith that America in the year 2017 will be caught up in an all-consuming frenzy of 1980s nostalgia. Every element of the movie - from the score to the production design to the costumes and hairstyles - is absolutely state of the art, assuming Ronald Reagan is still the president and Max Headroom is still the cutting edge of pop culture. It’s easy to picture Glaser standing just out of camera range in his white Miami Vice suit and poofy mullet, urging the effects department to pump up the dry ice. And what a cast! Yaphet Kotto, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jim Brown, Mick Fleetwood, Dweezil Zappa, Richard Dawson and Jesse Ventura - it’s like the dream lineup for the next edition of Celebrity Boot Camp.

“The Running Man really only makes sense if you take it on faith that America in the year 2017 will be caught up in an all-consuming frenzy of 1980s nostalgia.”

In light of the current glut of reality programming, you may well be wondering why no one has thought to turn The Running Man into an actual series. Well, as in all things, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are way ahead of you. Their production company, LivePlanet, developed a reality series for ABC called The Runner in the summer of 2001. The premise: a contestant is set loose somewhere in America and must evade capture by any random nutjob who may happen to be a viewer of The Runner. With a million dollar prize being offered for the runner’s capture, it’s safe to assume that at least a few viewers might resort to, say, bopping him over the head with a toaster oven if they happened to spot him in the appliance department of their local Wal-Mart. This thought apparently never occurred to network executives until after 9/11, but the project has been on “hiatus” ever since.
Which brings us full circle to the 2002 remake of Rollerball, directed by John McTiernan. If there’s any director who can make one yearn for the kinetic drive and intellectual rigor of a Norman Jewison picture, it’s McTiernan. A man who once seemed to have a handle on the mechanics of the action movie (Hunt for Red October, the original Die Hard), McTiernan has worked hard in recent years to cultivate a reputation as the most inept individual to wield a camera outside of HBO’s Project Greenlight. (His most recent feature, the John Travolta military thriller Basic, set a standard for mind-numbing incoherence that may not be surpassed in our lifetimes.)

The premise remains the same, inasmuch as there is a game called Rollerball, which involves skating, motorcycles and jamming a metal sphere into a goal. Some of the other elements of the original film - such as a beginning, a middle, and an end - have been jettisoned, in favor of stupefying montages set to unconscionably bad neo-hair-metal music. These innovative sequences are unconcerned with mundane conventions like spatial relations, continuity of movement, or narrative purpose. They do, however, serve to put some distance between the scenes in which an overcaffeinated Jean Reno (as the unscrupulous, ratings-hungry magnate who controls the Rollerball franchise) treats hangdog Chris Klein (as the game’s superstar player, Jonathan) to eyeball-popping pep talks in broken English, and for that we can be grateful.

Like Jewison before him, McTiernan has a message to share. True, it’s a hypocritical, self-serving and pandering message, one you can’t believe he has the stones to serve up with a straight face - but it’s a message nonetheless. You see, whenever blood is shed or bones are broken during a game of Rollerball, the Instant Global Ratings soar, with the audience often doubling or tripling in a matter of minutes. Violence means viewers! Well, except in the case of Rollerball, one of the most notorious box office duds of all time. McTiernan’s hand-wringing over this issue might carry more weight were it not for the fact that the grand finale of his own movie is such a wish-fulfillment orgy of head-crushing and blood-spurting, it makes I Spit On Your Grave look like a public service announcement for court-ordered mediation.

The epic failure of the Rollerball remake may have put the brakes on the sports-of-the-future genre for now, but fear not. For as long as there are publicity-crazed nitwits willing to don skintight bodysuits and attempt to knock each other off high wires into giant vats of gorilla poop for a network television audience, the spirit of the genre will live on.

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