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A review of "Prayer of the Rollerboys" (1990)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Prayer of the Rollerboys is an overly-ambitious and generally silly movie, but it's quite a bit smarter than you'd expect.  It's surprisingly watchable despite its bumps and creates a more convincing world than many recent dystopian future thrillers.  It straddles the line between "Ironic Fun" and "Underrated Thriller," so I recommend you pick which way you want to watch it first and try to turn off the other half of your brain.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Bit Where I Briefly Summarize the Plot

It's some ambiguous future date in Los Angeles.  Society has crumbled due to an undefined stock market crash that has sent the entire country into bankruptcy.  People everywhere are hooked on a terrible new drug called "Mist" and a deadly new gang of white supremacists known as the "Rollerboys" has emerged.

Why are they called "Rollerboys," you ask?  Simple: they travel via rollerblading.

Despite looking like a bunch of goofy performance artists, the Rollerboys are becoming a serious menace to Los Angeles due to their involvement in Mist production and distribution.  Their leader, Gary Lee (Christopher Collet), is a wizened nineteen year-old who preaches his doctrine and closes real estate deals as if he was a middle-aged business veteran.

Caught up in the middle of all this is "Ramrod" Griffin (Corey Haim), an ordinary pizza delivery guy, and his younger brother, Milton.  Griffin and Gary were friends as children, but as they grew older they went down different paths.  Unfortunately for them both, their destinies collide again when Griffin rescues a kid from a burning house - only to discover that he's a high-ranking Rollerboy.

Gary offers Griffin a place in his gang as a way of repaying his good deed.  Griffin initially balks, but the police - through various shenanigans - have him on the hook for some petty crimes.  They offer to wipe his record clean if he'll join the Rollerboys as an undercover agent on their behalf.  Specifically, they need somebody on the inside to locate the central place where Mist is being manufactured.  Also, while they're at it, they'd like to figure out the mystery of "the Rope," an ominous threat the Rollerboys keep dropping into their goofy hate-chants: "Fear the Rope."

Griffin reluctantly agrees to the ploy, and finds himself torn between friendship, family, and ethics.  Also he wants to bang Patricia Arquette.  Will he successfully bust up the drug ring?  Will he succumb to his act and lose his identity?  Will the rollerblading ever not look silly?

The Bit Where I Talk About Hate Groups

One of the most surprising elements in Rollerboys is its grounded and realistic representation of hate groups.  This is not a joke.

It's kind of like hearing about a movie where a guy has crippling, non-stop diarrhea and finding out that it's actually a moving portrait of long-term disabilities.  You'd go into it expecting either to laugh or just groan and roll your eyes, but once you get past the initial shock, you're in for a much higher level of maturity than the premise should allow.

Rollerboys presents a world of poverty and famine.  Young people are angry because there are no good opportunities for them, so they look for somebody to blame.  When a charismatic voice emerges from the noise, it sounds less like a stupid waste of time and more like a beacon of hope.  It's entirely within reason to expect that a kid with poor prospects would jump at the chance to follow a group who can offer answers and money.  Even if that group dresses stupidly and has a dumb hobby.

And let's face it: all gangs are kind of silly when you look at them on a larger level.  You have to wear certain colors and you use certain code words and secret handshakes or hand signs.  You have a "code" that you honor and respect on the level of a religion even though it's no different than any other gang's code.  And you're all united in anger toward other groups for no real reason except that you arbitrarily designated them as "not worthy" or "evil."  Joining a gang is basically the same thing as LARPing except that the demons you're fighting are tangible.

Rollerboys does something fascinating by taking the piss out of its titular gang up front and then rebuilding them as a force of menace.  When they make their debut, the Rollerboys are doing a synchronized roller-blading dance routine through a parking lot - how on Earth can you take something like that seriously?

Implementing Godwin's Law in 3... 2... 1...

...but I suppose that's probably how people felt when the Nazis first starting gaining ground.  You have a bunch of dumbass white boys wearing stupid brown shorts and goose-stepping like children while waving their shitty flag and crying about "my rights!!!1!!"  People probably scoffed and said, "Why should anybody listen to you?"  Same thing with the KKK.  A bunch of rednecks who say gibberish code words like "klum to my kluparty on kluSaturday" and wear bedsheets - don't they feel degraded?  Isn't it humiliating to put on a Klan costume and pretend to be a dyslexic idiot?

Hate groups always seem stupid at first.  And then somebody gets beaten to death.

Suddenly the childish nonsense becomes terrifying.  Khaki jorts with black armbands became a symbol of horror rather than a matter of derision.  Pointy hooded robes are indelibly linked with hangings and lynchings.  When you put it in that context, why couldn't rollerblading become a symbol of hate?  Just because it looks stupid doesn't mean it couldn't gain traction.

I don't think Rollerboys totally succeeds at turning the rollerblading into a fearsome spectacle - that's hard for a 90 minute movie to do.  Hate groups in real life managed to imbue new symbols with fear because they spent decades killing people and spreading violence.  It's too much to ask for that same level of repulsion out of a movie.  Nevertheless, I admire the concept.  Rollerboys managed to convert me from simply laughing outright at its premise to buying into it, and that's as much as you can really ask for.

The Bit Where I Evaluate Gary's Tactics

So I can buy into the premise.  Great.  How about Gary Lee's plans?  How is he at being a villain and a gang leader?


Let's be supportive first.  Gary, you managed to secure a lot of property and assets up front, including your very own power plant.  That's good.  You have a strong infrastructure in place for the community you hope to build.  You're also doing a bang-up job on the PR front.  Your regular television appearances will attract disillusioned young people the same way that Fox News wins elections for the GOP, and your weekly soup kitchens and charitable work gives the Rollerboys a much needed positive spin.  All in all, you've got a fantastic framework for a plan.

But let's talk about the drugs, Gary.  You're not good at this.

I know you're making a lot of money on your Mist sales.  I know you also have this devious plot to make minorities sterile by adding "the Rope" - a terrible toxic agent - to your drugs.  And I know that you spent all that time working the "Fear the Rope" bit into your gang's chants.  But this is a shitty business model, Gary.

Listen, think about how this is supposed to work.  You get your money from poor black people that you're trying to get hooked on Mist.  You use that money on food and education for your white followers, then you spend some on raw materials to produce more Mist that you then sell to more poor black kids.  So what do you do when all the black kids are so high and so poor that they can't generate money?  There's no more customer base.  And you can't sell Mist to white kids because that goes against your Code of Ethics.  And why are you even targeting poor people in the first place?  The one group that specifically does not have money?  Good businesses are based on products that can expand over time.

I also question your initiation rituals.  When Griffin's trying to join, you send three pledges to a military base to race around while being shot at.  You promise that only one of the three can join, and the other two die.  That means you have to go to the expense of driving to the military base with untraceable plates on your getaway van and convincing three people to go through with this stupid scheme just to get one new member?  That's such a poor return on your investment.  I know that the whole base-race was a distraction for the soldiers while your other goons stole a crate full of guns, but aren't you supposed to be about white supremacy?  Why would you let two viable followers die like that - in fact, you even shot one of them yourself!  That's so stupid, Gary!  That guy would've been useful for all kinds of low-level stuff in your gang.  He could've been the coffee guy.  That's why most gangs initiate people by jumping them in.  Yeah, it hurts a bit, but then they heal and now you've got all of them as new members.

Wait... I think I got it.  You don't understand how math works, do you?

The Bit Where I Conclude Things

I'd like to wrap this up with a bit of unironic affection for Corey Haim.

There's a few moments in the movie where Gary Lee says a few things that come across as kind of an omen for Haim's real-life downfall and death.  He pointedly condemns reckless spending and drug use while looking straight at Griffin.  It's not eerie or anything like that - it's more of a bitter reminder that Haim was actually a talented dude who threw away most of his potential.

There's not a lot on his resume that is especially defensible.  He made only a small handful of movies that can honestly be called good and the rest is either B-movie / direct-to-video schlock or '80s nostalgia trips that only aging hipsters can enjoy.  (I know, I know.  Glass houses.)

But I think Haim was a legitimately good actor, or at least he could have been.  There's a vacant expression he frequently wears in his movies that at first glance looks like he's just spacing out - and probably he was - but it's tinged with pain and regret.  You see it a lot in Rollerboys: a forlorn glance askew that tells you there's actually something beneath the surface. Probably those were the times when he was asking himself, "Am I ever going to do better than this?"

If Haim hadn't gone and drugged himself into oblivion, I'm generally convinced that, yeah, he probably would have.  He went through enough shit that - presuming he could've cleaned himself up - he'd be able to approach a dramatic role with deep humility.  There's a good chance we'd be seeing him in something right about now that would have revitalized his career - or at the very least made us take him seriously.  Maybe nothing as extreme as Rourke in The Wrestler or Travolta in Pulp Fiction - probably nothing Oscar-worthy - but powerful enough to make you ask that question nobody ever thought they'd ask: "When's the next Corey Haim movie coming out?"

Sadly, I think Rollerboys might have been the closest he ever got to that kind of a performance.  It's an imperfect consolation prize.

You can watch Prayer of the Rollerboys on Youtube.