Directed By: Jerrold Freedman
Starring: Raquel Welch, Kevin McCarthy, Helena Kallianiotes
Tag line: "The Hottest Thing On Wheels "
Trivia: Phil Ochs wrote a song with the same title that was originally going to be the title tune. It was never used, so he released it as a single instead
Having seen the sport only a few times on TV, I know next to nothing about roller derby. Luckily, I didn’t need to know much to enjoy 1972’s Kansas City Bomber, a drama about a single mom who supports her family by lacing up her roller skates and pummeling her opponents.
Diane Carr (Raquel Welch), aka “K.C.”, the darling of roller derby in Kansas City, has been traded to Portland (to make it easier for the fans to digest, the management of the Kansas City team arranges a grudge match between K.C. and her teammate, Big Bertha, played by Patti ‘Moo Moo’ Cavin, with the stakes being the loser has to get out of town for good. Obviously, K.C. loses). As for K.C., she welcomes the change of venue, mostly because it brings her closer to her two kids, Rita (a very young Jodie Foster) and Walt (Stephen Manley), who live with her mother (Martine Bartlett) in California. What’s more, the owner of the Portland team, Burt Henry (Kevin McCarthy), has big plans for K.C., and promises to make her a star. This doesn’t sit well with her new teammates, especially team captain Jackie Burdette (Helena Kallianiotes), who, after 6 years on top, isn’t willing to play second fiddle to anyone. Can K.C. make a go of it in Portland, or will Burt’s wheeling and dealing land her in yet another town?
Raquel Welch is likeable but not convincing in the lead role, and the melodrama is, at times, heavy handed (one nighttime scene, where Jackie and K.C. duke it out on some railroad tracks, really pushed the envelope), but none of this really matters because the life line of Kansas City Bomber is its skating scenes. Shot in a manner that maximizes the excitement, these sequences kick the energy level up each and every time, and with professional skaters joining the cast members, we’re treated to some honest-to-goodness roller action (more than once, I found myself swept up by the exhilaration of it all).
As much as I enjoyed the roller derby scenes in Kansas City Bomber, I have to admit I’m still a little fuzzy on something: is what happens in the rink real, or is it staged, like they do in professional wrestling? The movie doesn’t offer a definitive answer. Some moments were clearly staged; the opening showdown between K.C. and Big Bertha was done for the crowd’s sake, seeing as K.C. had, by that point, already been traded to Portland. But then, the movie gives us a few segments where the action appears to be 100% genuine (Quite often, when K.C. gets into a fracas or hits the deck, she looks to be in actual pain, a look she carries with her into the dressing room). To be honest, though, I didn’t care if it was real or not. It was fun, and watching Kansas City Bomber had me wishing I’d paid more attention to Roller Derby when I was a kid.
I would have probably loved it.