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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Kansas City Bomber
Kansas City Bomber
Warner Bros. // PG // May 31, 2005
List Price: $14.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 4, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Ah, the roller derby, that long-lost venue of wholesome, family entertainment and an inspired environment in which to plunk down gorgeous, sweaty Raquel Welch. Though Kansas City Bomber (1972) failed to ignite at the box office, the image of Welch in her roller derby uniform was in the 1970s about as close as she came to recapturing that wonderfully iconic image of her in that rabbit-skin bikini for One Million Years, B.C. (1966). (Her naked-under-the-poncho look for the underrated Hannie Caulder comes close, too.) All things considered Welch has managed her career extremely well over the years, and Kansas City Bomber was a shrewd career move: though sold on the basis of its girlfight/roller derby action, the film is really a character drama, dripping with interesting atmosphere. It doesn't quite work, but it's a valiant attempt all the same.

In Kansas City, roller girl K.C. Carr (Welch) is challenged by Big Bertha Bogliani (Patti "Moo Moo" Cavin, who resembles Rosie O'Donnell) to a one-on-one duel for the right to remain with the team - the loser has to leave Kansas City and never return. "Everything goes," so says the referee, and K.C. is beaten to a pulp in the slugfest. She's quickly traded to the Portland Loggers, owned by ambitious Burt Henry (Kevin McCarthy), who's in the midst of trying to sell network rights to the league's games.

With Burt obviously on the make, K.C. struggles to fend off loneliness, keep her boss happy, and get along with her teammates, most of whom taken an instant dislike to her. Jackie Burdette (Helena Kallianiotes), for six years the team's captain, is now a mean drunk who regards K.C. as a potential usurper to her unsteady throne. About the only friends K.C. has are Lovey (Mary Kay Pass), who invites K.C. to room with her on her houseboat; and Horrible Hank Hopkins (Norman Alden), an aging roller-gamer taking rough physical and mental punishment both on the rink and by unruly fans who love to hate him.

Kansas City Bomber is a movie about desperate characters, stars in a dying sport (National Skating Derby, Inc., folded soon after Kansas City Bomber was released) with all of the vices but none of the glamour or big money of deeper-pocketed pro games. They're all trapped in jobs they have little passion for, are at the constant mercy of fickle owners like Burt who'll make empty promises and trade players out of personal jealously or maybe just pure spite. K.C. is trapped in a job that takes her away from her two fatherless kids, Walt (Stephen Manley) and Rita (Jodie Foster, then just nine years old), who are raised by their unhappy grandmother (Martine Bartlett).

Welch is very good throughout, believable as a woman determined to make life better for her kids, but unaware she's fighting a battle that's essentially unwinnable. Kevin McCarthy, nearly 60 but looking 40, is a long way from Death of a Salesman but effective is K.C.'s manipulative boss. Jeanne Cooper looks like the real thing as the Loggers' tough-talking general manager.

The film also abounds in the seedy, smoky atmosphere of the Roller Games, where fans and players alike smoke Marlboro Reds and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. There never seem to be more than a few hundred fans in the audience and their bloodlust seems quite authentic. You can almost smell the arenas.

The problem, though, is that screenwriters Calvin Clements, Sr., and Thomas Rickman (adapting Barry Sandler's story) erred in not explaining the basic rules of the game for those in the movie audience new to the sport, and can't settle on how much of the violence is real and how much is staged in the manner of pro-wrestling. Director Jerrold Freedman doesn't help matters, shooting the action from unimaginative angles without keeping any real sense of geography. Most of it is blandly shot with hand-held cameras watching the skaters go 'round and 'round from the sidelines.

The film is bleak in that fashionably early-'70s way, and annoyingly inconclusive. The ending is a cop-out that doesn't solve or answer any of the issues carefully raised throughout the picture. The film seems to have been shot on an extremely low budget, probably less than a million dollars. It might have cost more, but plays like there was less money to go around than the average priced TV-movie.

Video & Audio

Warner Bros. presents Kansas City Bomber in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen. The image is so-so. Movies from this period tend to have ugly color and contrast and this is no exception. Further, Metrocolor, which did the original lab work, was in complete disarray during the 1980s, and many original film elements were lost or mislaid. Whether this impacted Kansas City Bomber is unknown, but the image is serviceable but no better. The mono sound has the same limitations. Optional subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.

Extra Features

The lone supplement is a trailer, also 16:9, complete with narration and text.

Parting Thoughts

It wouldn't have taken much to push Kansas City Bomber over into minor gem category, if only the roller derby sequences had shown some panache, or something, and the interesting collection of characters, especially Welch's believably deglamourized rollergirl, had been provided a better third act.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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