Prayer of the Rollerboys

There are dystopic B-movies about roller-skating teens that are so bad they’re good (Solarbabies, represent!), and there are dystopic B-movies about roller-skating teens that are just plain good. Defying all reasonable expectations, 1990’s Prayer of the Rollerboys falls into the latter category.

Prayer of the Rollerboys, which was directed by Rick King, takes place in Los Angeles in the near future, following a epic market crash that left the United States financially crippled and deeply in debt to various foreign powers. The job market’s been gutted, homelessness is rampant, the top universities have been transplanted overseas, brick by ivy-covered brick, and violent gangs rule the streets. Chief among the gangs are the Rollerboys, a gaggle of fresh-scrubbed rollerblading teens with automatic weapons and insidious white-supremacist leanings. Led by charismatic psychopath Gary Lee (Christopher Collet), the Rollerboys are both influential and hyper-organized; for crying out loud, they’ve got pension plans. Shrewdly capitalizing on the uneasy zeitgeist of the time—fear of an unstable future, hatred of outsiders—Gary Lee has positioned himself as the city’s savior. He’s a whiz at manipulating public opinion (the Rollerboys distribute free lunches and propaganda-heavy comic books to kids, all of it financed by their lucrative drug-selling business); in a more affluent society, he’d be running a Fortune 500 company.

After his estranged childhood friend Griffin (Corey Haim) rescues his right-hand man Bullwinkle (Morgan Weisser) from a fire, Gary Lee proclaims himself in Griffin’s debt. He lavishes expensive gifts on him, then sets about coercing him into joining the Rollerboys.

Yes, Prayer of the Rollerboys is a Corey Haim movie, and yes, I stand by my opening statement that it’s good.

What’s more, Haim is one of the film’s strengths. Setting aside his widely-lauded breakthrough performance in 1986’s Lucas, it’s probably his best work. (Yes, yes, The Lost Boys is a beloved horror classic, and rightly so, but it’s not Haim’s movie). In his book Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies, Jonathan Bernstein observes, “Corey Haim’s name quickly became synonymous with vapidity. His subsequent [post-Lucas] work consisted of a smirk and a prolonged bout of tonsorial experimentation … Who knew that [Haim] would become so entranced with his own adorability that he’d become physically painful to watch?” It’s an uncharitable assessment, but anyone who suffered through License to Drive must admit there’s some truth to it. Haim, though, gets through Prayer of the Rollerboys with nary a smirk. His Griffin is smart, purposeful, and likeable.

(I first saw Prayer of the Rollerboys many years ago, then revisited it last week after reading an essay in Slate that drew disturbing parallels between the troubled-plagued lives of Haim, who died in 2010, and Justin Bieber. In a frenzy of nostalgia, I then read Coreyography, a memoir by Haim’s best friend and frequent co-star, Corey Feldman. Infused with a sense of unstoppable doom, Coreyography is bleak and affecting; the chapters devoted to Haim’s tragic life and early death are downright horrifying. Feldman and Haim—the Two Coreys, as they were once widely known—have been easy pop-culture punching bags for the past couple of decades, twin symbols of the worst qualities of teen idoldom: the narcissism, the excesses, the self-delusions, the addictions, the arrests. Coreyography effectively inoculates their reputations against future ridicule. It’s impossible to read Feldman’s grim account of their lives in the public eye and still take any pleasure in lampooning them. Those kids went through hell, and Haim didn’t make it out alive.)

Haim and Collet have a complex, interesting dynamic in their scenes together. (Fun fact: Haim made his big-screen debut playing Collet’s brother in the 1984 drama Firstborn). There’s a bond between Griffin and Gary Lee that they can’t ignore, even while they distrust each other: Gary Lee is well aware that Griffin disapproves of everything the Rollerboys represent, while Griffin is well aware that his former best friend, while outwardly genial, is probably evil and crazy.

Recently orphaned, Griffin is the sole caretaker of his odious kid brother Miltie (Devin Clark), who idolizes the glamorous and powerful Rollerboys. To protect Miltie, Griffin agrees to work with the LAPD to infiltrate the Rollerboys and take them down from within. He also embarks upon a tepid romance with undercover cop Casey, played by a pre-True Romance Patricia Arquette. Arquette, a fine actress under other circumstances, gives an indifferent performance in an indifferent role; her scenes could be snipped clean out of the movie, and the story wouldn’t suffer for it.

Gary Lee, who is no fool, is skeptical about Griffin’s change of heart and begins testing his loyalties in violent and unpleasant ways. Complicating matters more is Bullwinkle, who seethes in resentment at owing his life to Griffin, and who openly bristles at the way Griffin has supplanted him as Gary Lee’s clear favorite.

Ah, Bullwinkle, or, as I like to think of him, Pissy McPouty. A prickly, snappish, gun-toting mess of snarled put-downs and sneers and sarcastically rolled eyes hiding under a great mop of hair, Bullwinkle is fun. After this, Morgan Weisser went on to star in the short-lived FOX series Space: Above and Beyond (1995), a Very Serious sci-fi drama about beautiful young people fighting aliens in space; it was gloomy and solemn and not especially good—picture Battlestar Galactica, but where nothing ever happens—and yet my sister and I watched every single damn episode, strictly because of our fondness for Bullwinkle.

Also notable amongst the Rollerboys is the garrulous Bango (Mark Pellegrino): friendlier than Bullwinkle, but no less dangerous. Pellegrino has gone on to work steadily in television (he was Jacob on Lost, and he currently stars in The Tomorrow People on The CW). It may be a B-movie, but Haim, Collet, Weisser and Pellegrino all turn in big-league performances.

And make no mistake, Prayer of the Rollerboys is indeed a B-movie. That’s not meant as a slight. Probably because they’re forced to make more out of less, dystopic B-movies have a pretty decent track record—just look at the original Mad Max, or A Boy and His Dog—whereas their big-budget cousins often drift into a warm soup of undifferentiated glossy spectacle. (Last year, I sat in a movie theater and watched, one after another, the trailers for After Earth, Elysium, and Oblivion, and… those are all the same damn movie, right?)  Prayer of the Rollerboys takes some of the scruffier parts of Los Angeles—the ratty stretches of Venice Beach, the concrete culverts of the L.A. River, the industrial sprawls of El Segundo and Long Beach—and makes them look just a smidgen rougher and scarier. It’s an inexpensive solution, but it works.

The script, which is by veteran screenwriter W. Peter Iliff (Point Break, Varsity Blues, Patriot Games), is smart enough to know the film isn’t about the setting, it’s about Griffin and Gary Lee. Their story—childhood best friends, one morally pure and the other deeply corrupt, who wind up scheming to destroy each other—would work equally well in other settings. Turn Griffin and Gary Lee into feuding Wall Street titans, or Hong Kong Triad members, or rival small-town librarians, and their story would still pack a punch.

It all builds, amidst betrayals and mounting violence, to a surprisingly rip-roaring climax, in which a gun-toting Gary Lee relentlessly pursues Griffin (on rollerblades, natch) through an abandoned naval shipyard. The tag ending, in which Gary Lee calmly orchestrates terrible vengeance against Griffin from his prison cell, makes me genuinely sad nobody ever made a sequel. I would be happy to spend more time with Griffin and Gary Lee.


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