The hottest thing on wheels!
Boxing has Rocky. Baseball has The Natural. Basketball has Hoop Dreams. Hockey has Slap Shot. Football has that one about the mule that kicks field goals. It seems like every sport has its one big movie, from gymnastics (Stick It) to bobsledding (Cool Runnings) to wheelchair rugby (Murderball).
Roller derby has Kansas City Bomber.
Diane “K.C.” Carr (Raquel Welch, Fantastic Voyage) is the hottest roller derby star in Kansas City. But when tensions increase between her and a teammate, the two settle their differences in a three-lap match race around the banked track, with the loser leaving Kansas forever. It’s a brutal face-off, and K.C. loses.
Before the dust can settle K.C. is already recruited to join another team, owned by wealthy Burt Henry (Kevin McCarthy, The Howling). Once there, she makes some new friends, such the kind-hearted Lovey (Mary Kay Pass, Helter Skelter) and the monstrous but misunderstood Horrible Hank Hopkins (Norman Alden, Back to the Future).
As K.C.’s star continues to rise on her new team, tensions once again flare up, thanks to the team’s former headliner, the self-destructive Jackie Burdette (Helena Kallianiotes, The Drowning Pool). Burt has big plans for K.C.’s career, but that might separate her from her two children. With her future in doubt and Jackie out to get her, it all comes down to another high speed face-off on the track.
The early 1970s were arguably the height of the roller derby’s popularity (to date, at least) so of course Hollywood was right there to cash in on it. Raquel Welch was riding high off the success of One Million Years B.C. and its memorably sexy movie poster, so she made for a lovely and physically imposing star, just the right kind to lace up a pair of quads in a rough ‘n tumble elbow-flyin’ derby flick.
Welch, who did a lot of her own stunts, is fully believable as a skating superstar. As K.C., she really comes across as the center of attention wherever she goes. Off the track, though, her fame dissipates, and she’s just another single mom working hard to get by. Her daughter, by the way, is played by a super-young Jodie Foster (Panic Room). At first, K.C.’s relationship with Burt promises a brighter future, but as she learns more about Burt and his motivations, it seems that he only has his best interests in heart, not hers. The conflict within K.C. is whether to follow Burt’s lead or tread her own path.
A lot of these emotional crises play themselves out on the track. First, we see K.C. build a friendship with fellow skater Horrible Hank, who is far more kind and well-meaning than his monstrous on-track persona. When Hank decides he’s had enough of the audience calling him “pig,” a fight breaks out, and K.C. tries to step in and settle the peace. Later, when tensions between K.C. and Jackie reach their extremes, it’s time for a climactic match race, bookending the one that started the movie.
The behind-the-scenes look we get at roller derby makes the movie an even more interesting relic of the times. In some cases, it seems like a genuine sport, with players fretting over winning and losing, as well as personality conflicts getting in the way of their operating as a team. But then, we see Burt manipulate the players so that certain games will end how he wants them to, often with crowd-pleasing surprise endings. Whether the game is real or not depends on whether the plot needs it to be at that moment. So I’m of two minds as to how the sport is depicted in this movie. On one hand, it doesn’t show roller derby much respect when characters carry chairs onto the track and throw each other over tables in the infield. On the other hand, this sort of rampant cheesiness is a part of the derby’s history, not to mention hilariously entertaining.
Speaking of history, there are quite a few well-loved skaters from the sport’s past seen in the movie as themselves, including “Little Richard” Brown, Leon Jackson, and Ralphie Valladares. Brown does a completely insane move using a trash can and his opponent that is beautiful in its ridiculousness. The skating star with the most screen time, though, appears to be derby queen Judy Arnold, who was a skating double for Welch and has a few speaking lines as well. I’m sure those more steeped in derby lore than I am can spot even more former legends of the banked track in the backgrounds.
This brings us to the movie’s ending. The big match race is a fine showdown, with plenty of hard hits and slams against the track, but it doesn’t definitively conclude the story. I was left wanting to know what happened next, with the fallout of the race. What did this mean for Burt and K.C.? What about K.C.’s kids? What became of Jackie? The movie needs a few quick scenes added to the end to wrap up its plotlines, but they never happen. Maybe this was intended to be the first part of a trilogy or something.
Although the skating action is sometimes thrilling and sometimes funny, and the movie zips along at a quick enough pace, it does tread a little too deep in the waters of sappy melodrama. The scene in which Jackie hits rock bottom and drunkenly wanders onto some train tracks late at night is camp in the worst way, from the overacting, to the obnoxiously heartfelt music, to its “suspenseful” conclusion. There are a few other times when the movie goes for the heavy dramatics like this, and they just don’t quite work in my eyes. I suppose some might call these scenes “gritty ’70s realism,” but I call them “hokey.” Also, the words “roller derby” don’t actually appear in the movie. Instead, it’s referred to as “the roller game.” I suspect lawyers.
The picture quality here is good but not great. It’s wonderful to be able to see the movie in its original aspect ration, but the visuals have a lot of haze and even a few scratches. The mono sound is a little more disappointing, considering the potential exists to really bring the movie to life aurally, with a lot of ’70s tunes and screaming crowds that could have sounded much better than it is. The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which gives away the ending.
When reading the above review, you might have noticed that I am, in fact, a roller derby fan. It’s subtle, but it’s in there. But whether you’re interested in this movie for the sport or for the story, I’m afraid that Kansas City Bomber‘s only real value is as a novelty item. It’s fun to view as a case of “this is how they made ’em back then,” but beyond that, there’s not much else here.