Format: Amazon Watch Party
Director: Jerrold Freedman
So... Picking movies for Friday watch parties is always a challenge. We talk over the movies, so it can't be anything too complicated. It has to be fun because we're not watching a movie on a Friday to be miserable - and that's not the vibe for riffing, anyway.
While Raquel Welch is an international icon, and I wanted to use the Watch Party to celebrate her the week of her passing, she is just as likely to play a supporting part as a lead. But this was all about Ms. Welch, and thus I was also looking to find a movie in which she played the lead. Plus, I like Roller Derby. So, I picked Kansas City Bomber (1972), not really knowing much about it. But that is not to say that I saw the trailers and was not dazzled that the romantic co-star was Kevin McCarthy. I mean...
Look, I'm not a an expert on 1970's filmmaking, but there are some various strains of what happened during the decade, and I don't think it's entirely a mistake that by the early 1980's we pivoted and movies have built on what some directors were doing during the 70's while what others were doing shows up in indie film but isn't what makes mainstream film or blockbusters. You can love Altman, but meandering movies with sprawling casts and confusing audio are not still super en vogue.
Kansas City Bomber (1972) could have been a fun movie about the wacky world of pro-Roller Derby, a third-tier sport that mixed actual competition with pro-wrestling hucksterism, ginned up rivalries and general ludicrousness. But this is 1972, and someone decided this movie needed to be a working class drama about a woman who rolls away from the life built on certain expectations that didn't work out. She's more or less abandoned her two kids from a failed marriage to live with her mother and she's making a living as a regional Roller Derby pro, a career that literally can't pay much. Which really just opens the door to all sorts of questions like: but why? and... what for? and... does this really pay any better than literally any other job?
It's a movie that - like a particular flavor of 1970's movie - believes we're to just catch snatches of conversations and bits of story with a sort of fly-on-the-wall observation of the characters more than ever being right alongside them. And, because our hero, KC (Welch) never says what's going on with her, it's a lot of inference. Which, as it turns out, is pretty tricky when it comes to movies and characters. We can kind of infer, gather and guess as to how KC is doing, what she wants, etc... but you're never really on sure footing. I'll argue, this can be done well. This ain't it.
The end result is that you get the feeling Raquel Welch, who is a good actor, is doing her best to turn in a performance as a lead - a messy, imperfect protagonist - and you're watching someone from thirty feet away through a screen door. The journey her character is on is hazy - it feels more episodic than a clear through-line as we try on some montage filmmaking.
Anyway, I like Kevin McCarthy. He's been a big part of making me enjoy many-a-movie. He is a supremely weird choice for the romantic interest for KC. He's got 26 years on her, and isn't exactly Tyrone Power and seems like a walking red flag (in this film).
The movie wants to show the They Shoot Horses, Don't They? lifestyle of the blue-collar world of Roller Derby. To that end we get a few predictable and not well fleshed out b-plots, like Jackie - the former hot skater who has lost her crown to Welch and is now drinking heavily. We have the Lenny-like Hank who has "doomed" written all over him because he is nice and not corrupt and exists to be a cautionary lesson to KC. I assumed Jackie would be the necessary "has a bad night and KC watches and then we never see the character again" character, but it was Hank.
BECAUSE ROLLER DERBY WILL DESTROY YOU.
Anyway, it would be keen if the movie made any attempt to explain why these people, who all seem ready to walk into the sea and keep going all feel like Roller Derby is the only option. Like, any clue how this is better than working in an office or joining the circus or literally anything. Details, movie. "I was gonna suffocate here" is a thesis. It is not a supporting statement.
I appreciate what everyone thought they were doing. It's a shame it isn't a great movie because it has pretentions of being one. But this was kind of that era of film school grads deciding they were going to make "realistic" films, and with budgets what they were, we got Hal Ashby movies and even Scorsese films. And some of that works. And you have a whole lot don't work for audiences in 2023, I suppose. Or me, I guess.
If you're looking for a movie with well-drawn characters about Roller Derby, just watch Whip It! You'll be happier.
Does Welch look amazing in a roller derby uniform? Sir, that is not a serious question. Do I buy that she'd throw an elbow or knock someone over? I assume she did that, anyway, without direction.
Anyway, I wish I'd picked 100 Rifles, but here we are. I'll watch that one later.