You might find this hard to believe, but forty years ago, teams of hot women on roller skates brutalizing one another at top speed on an oval track was a pretty popular sport in America. Capitalizing on the short-lived phenom was director Jerrold Freeman’s “Kansas City Bomber” (1972), a character study of K.C. Karr (Raquel Welch), one of the stars of the bizarre and violent subculture of roller derby.
If you are looking for a sports comely like “Slap Shot,” this is not it. The sport is merely the background setting for the exploration of a recent divorcee and single mother looking for something more than the usual-usual American suburban life; and finding a pathetic kind of fame in a seedy world filled with nobodies who think they are stars and manipulative lowlifes who think they are big shots.
“Kansas City Bomber” is actually more successful exploring the world of roller derby than the character of K.C. When the story is unfolding on the rink, even with the terrible stunt doubles, it’s entertaining. But through no fault of Welch’s, too many of the character moments are just too awkwardly scripted and directed to have any impact.
Helena Kallianiotes has some good scenes as K.C.’s bitter rival. Their subplot embodies the old saying, “The fight was so bitter because the stakes are so small.” Kevin McCarthy plays one of those manipulative lowlifes who thinks he’s a big shot; and Jodie Foster even pops up in a small role as Welch’s young daughter.
As a healthy heterosexual male, I am not ashamed to admit that Welch’s astonishing beauty was reason enough to watch. Though she had already been a star for more than a half-decade, at 32 years-old, she never looked better. There are worse ways to spend 99 minutes than looking at Raquel Welch.
At the time of its release, “Kansas City Bomber” probably wasn’t appreciated for something it does best: captures the look, time, and feel of something that only existed for a brief moment. I have always had an affection for films that succeed at taking you on a tour of some small corner of American life you might not have even known existed. For all its flaws (and there are many), “Kansas City Bomber” definitely succeeds at that.
“Kansas City Bomber” is available at the Warner Archives.