I wanted to like Kansas City Bomber. Its mix of exploitative roller derby catfights and melodrama seemed like the perfect Saturday afternoon confection. I’m a big fan of Slap Shot, another 70s sports “entertainment” flick about the struggle between real athletics and sideshow freakishness; all to bring in the crowds. Alas, this is not Slap Shot. The film can’t decide what it is, leaving the audience holding its breath, waiting for an “all skate.”
Raquel Welch, one of the most famous sex symbols (deservedly so) of the late 60s and 70s, was looking for a property that could reveal her true acting chops. Her nascent production company with then husband Patrick Curtis purchased the script from Barry Sandler, a graduate student who had written Kansas City Bomber as his thesis. Sadly, if they had spent money on some rewrites, it could have raised the material and Welch’s status as she had hoped.
K.C. Carr (Welch) is the star player for the Kansas City Ramblers who loses a five-lap skate-off challenge to the team’s “heel” Big Bertha, which forces her to be traded to the Portland Loggers. The transition is tough for her, as she tries to make her mother, who cares for K.C.’s children, to understand her need to “get a piece of the action,” and pursue her rollerderby career. Once in Portland, she finds the team none-too-welcoming. The team’s star skater, Jackie, is threatened by Carr’s presence. Carr’s affair with the team’s owner, Kevin McCarthy, threatens to tear her and her team apart.
If you’re worried there’s not enough roller derby action, you have nothing to fear, In fact, the biggest problem for the film is not the action, but the lack of plot. After an extended set of opening derby bouts with over-the-top action and wrestling style “promos” (the staged shouts into the microphone dares, arguments and threats) you think (and hope) that once we get into the locker room we’ll get some ironic revelations about the athletes real relationships that gives insight into the real world they live in. No such luck as it turns out the challenge between Welch’s K.C. Carr and Big Bertha is supposed to be “real,” and because she lost the challenge she actually is forced to leave Kansas City. This reveal leads to a not-as-hilarious as you’d like 70s car drive montage across the country where she makes a pit-stop to bond with her kids (one of whom is little Jodie Foster in her first feature film) before moving onto Portland. Are we really to believe a stunt like the challenge with Big Bertha would result in a real challenge with the loser leaving? Especially when K.C. is the star of the team?
There’s a subplot that involves a lovable yet simple player named Horrible Hank (this is the days of men and women teams) who finally breaks under the team’s (and fans) ridicule that gives the story its greatest promise, as it is an opportunity for K.C. to see what an exploitative business she’s in. But it’s too little too late, and we’re back to watching McCarthy continue to exploit Welch.
If the film had a clear message a la Slap Shot or instead, committed to over the top kitsch with some gratuitous skin, ludicrous dialogue and B-Movie shenanigans, it would work. Instead, it’s clear Welch wanted this to be a serious offering and the studio wanted something less noble, so we’re left somewhere in the middle.
Interestingly, watching it with today’s sensibilities, it’s a little frustrating to watch Welch be manhandled throughout, and her character play a little too submissive. The pivotal moment of her final bout, edited in multiple jump cuts and extreme slo-mo, is such a mediocre act of rebellion that it’s surprising when she takes to the ring with a red, white and blue banner, as if she has “beaten them all.”
This newly released Warner Archive Classic includes the trailer which is a fascinating little extra because it offers up some quick moments from a scene that was ultimately cut from the final version. This scene between Welch and McCarthy offers some important dialogue that could’ve really worked in the film’s favor. Overall the DVD has a good, crisp picture, but the audio is muffled and in need of some restoration.
There’s no arguing Kansas City Bomber’s derby sequences are full of no holds barred action, with some pretty impressive stunt work, (albeit with big messy wigs to obscure the stunt men (or women’s) faces) and Welch getting into the fray enough that she broke her wrist, halting production for 6 weeks, but it’s only half the film. If the other half had committed to its story, this would really be worth a spin around the rink.