I’ve never been able to understand the sport of roller derby. As a kid in the 70’s I remember it being a pretty big deal, but it never made sense. I just remember people in short shorts skating around in circles and occasionally feeding each other their fists. Even the 2009 film Whip It did little to help me understand how the sport works. Yet, I decided to see if a film from the 70’s, when roller derby ruled, could help improve my understanding. So strap on your skates for Raquel Welch in 1972’s Kansas City Bomber.
Welch plays K.C. Carr, a single mother trying to make a living as part of Kansas City’s roller derby team. Now, from what I can gather here, roller derby is not exactly a sport that puts a high value on teamwork…so when K.C. ends up in an argument with a teammate it leads to a skate off with the loser having to leave town and never return. Guess who loses!
K.C. now heads west to join up with a team in Portland, Oregon. She stops in California on the way to visit her kids who live with her mother…and includes a daughter played by young Jodie Foster. In Portland she finds out that the team owner, Burt Henry (Kevin McCarthy) has plans to make K.C. a major draw for the team. This makes her relationships with her teammates testy from the start. It also doesn’t help that Burt is making the moves on K.C. When one of K.C.’s few friends on the team, Lovey (Mary Kay Pass), gets in the way he trades her. When one of the male team members, “Horrible” Hank (Norman Alden) starts to get sweet on her, Burt paints him as the villain of the rink and gets the audience to love booing the poor guy.
Things get more and more heated between K.C. and the team, and between her and Burt when he informs her of his plans to send her to Chicago to headline a new team he’s created. It all comes down to another skate off between K.C. and her chief rival, Jackie (Helen Kallianiotes), to show everyone who’s boss.
Kansas City Bomber doesn’t really have much of an overarching story, it’s more of slice-of-life story of someone who happens to be a roller derby goddess. The film is thoroughly intriguing, though. Welch plays K.C. as a strong character, but at the same time her struggles and vulnerabilities are very believable. It’s strange to say this about a statuesque beauty like Raquel Welch, but she really sells the idea that she is an average woman, struggling with work, family, and relationships.
One aspect of the story, however, that doesn’t work as well is the relationship between Welch and McCarthy. I think it comes down to miscasting more than anything. Don’t get me wrong, Kevin McCarthy is a fine actor and well suited to the villainous aspects of his role, but am I supposed to believe that the 30-something (at the time) amazon Raquel Welch is getting all tingly over the (at the time) 60-year-old McCarthy!?! Sorry, ain’t buyin’ it! Me thinks the part must have been written for someone younger. While I like what McCarthy does with much of his performance, this little detail ends up being a major blow to the believability of the film.
What really does work well is the atmosphere of the film. It gives a wonderfully funky look at this uniquely 70’s institution of roller derby. There’s so much fun to be had just watching the cutaway shots of the various fans cheering and booing the skaters. I think only wrestling fans have these folks beat when it comes to unhinged enthusiasm.
On a whole, I found Kansas City Bomber to be a fun slice of the 70’s, anchored by a skilled performances by one of the era’s most iconic beauties. I still don’t understand the sport of roller derby, but I had fun watching it!