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Kansas City Bomber
1972 - PG - 99 Mins.
Director: Jerrold Freedman
Producer: Martin Elfand
Written By: Calvin Clements Sr., Thomas Rickman
Starring: Raquel Welch, Kevin McCarthy, Helena Kallianiotes, Norman Alden
Review by: Jake Cremins
'Kansas City Bomber' is about the last movie I'd have expected to feel like a missed opportunity. I mean, this is the Raquel Welch roller derby movie we're talking about. And yet there I was, thinking to myself that there were all the makings of a genuinely good movie in here—that the writing had a sense of the way people operate, and that the acting was unaffected and believable, and that the direction had the kind of low-key reality that made you forget you were watching a movie. And that, maddeningly, they'd blown it anyway.

The story, what there is of it, involves what happens when Welch is traded from the Kansas City team to one in Portland, Oregon. The way this happens is interesting: in public, Welch and another player have a bitter feud that culminates in a one-on-one race around the rink, punching and kicking allowed, with the loser being forced to move out of town. In private, the deal has already been made; it's just business, and the no-holds-barred race is good theater.

There are a lot of moments like that, in which 'Kansas City Bomber' makes the roller derby look not like trashy, violent fun, but just another boring job. On the rink there are rivalries and alliances and dirty fighting, but after the day is over everyone gathers at the same bar to unwind. There is some excitement during the matches, but more often there's the same endless travel and grimy workspaces and day-to-day monotony of anything else. Nobody seems to get any joy out of their work, and why should they? You could end up with a broken neck, all in service of a sport where the roller derby episode of "Charlie's Angels" counts as cultural enshrinement.

Indeed, the movie is so good at establishing its tone—at convincing us to take it seriously—that it's kind of infuriating to find it can't put together a plot. We get one good scene, and then another, and then another, and at some point it becomes clear that none of them are going to add up to anything. Supporting characters and problematic situations arrive, are given a scene or two of great weighty importance, and are completely forgotten about whenever they're offscreen. Huge pieces of character motivation and connecting material seem to be missing. By the time Welch begins an affair with the team's owner (Kevin McCarthy), we realize that we have absolutely no idea how we're supposed to feel about it, or even how she feels about it. (We never find out, either.) After a while the whole thing is just impenetrable, and since it wasn't really trying to be fun in the first place, we're left with nothing to do but wait for it to be over.

There's lots of roller derby action, and it's surprisingly realistic. I can't quite believe that any sane insurance company would let Raquel Welch actually take the hits and falls she does here, but it sure looks like she did. Most of the matches we see, alas, are designed to compliment the story, and we don't end up having much of a stake in the way things turn out. The climactic sequence, in which Welch is forced into another one-on-one race, plays as though we're supposed to be feeling great suspense about the outcome; instead we have absolutely no idea, at all, what it will mean if she wins, loses, stays or goes. She does do one of those things, and we wait for the movie to explain why she did what she did, and what's going to happen next. Instead, we get the credits.

I dunno. 'Kansas City Bomber' looks like a genuine, earnest effort on the part of the actors and filmmakers—Welch even co-produced—and I can't help feeling that it must have been in service of a story they believed in. The movie has so many good elements, put together so incompetently, that I wouldn't be surprised if it used to have a lot more plotting and a lot less roller-skating action, and that someone decided during editing that we wouldn't be getting our money's worth unless it was the other way around. Like I said, there's a good movie buried in here somewhere. Dead, too.
Movie Guru Rating
Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable.
  2.5 out of 5 stars

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