[This piece was originally published on 2/9/2015 for the now defunct site CineDome]
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time watching cartoons on Saturday morning, and I spent a lot of time playing video games. The most important way to spend time for me, though, was watching a tv station called WPIX. It became The WB Television Network in 1995, and after a lot of changing hands between Warner Brothers, CBS and others it’s roughly what we now know as CW. “WPIX” itself still exists in NYC in the form of PIX-11, but it’s a shell of its former movie marathon, Star Trek syndicating glory.
As a kid I’d get to see a huge variety of movies thanks to this station, and there was no gauge for critical popularity. A typical Saturday would give us a solid block of Apocalypse Now, The Puma Man, Clash of the Titans, and Flash Gordon. The Sunday after would have Mad Max, Blade Runner, The Thing, and The Godfather. It wasn’t a sci-fi or action movie or drama themed channel but, rather, a channel of whatever they got their hands on. So you’d have classic stuff like The Exorcist mixed in with Cyborg Cop, every weeknight and all weekend. Most of these movies were ubiquitous in fine video rental establishments throughout the city, but one stuck with me that I never saw anywhere else, The Blood of Heroes.
I only saw this movie on WPIX once in 1991 and thought it was awesome. It stuck with me due to my love of post apocalyptic movies and because of its mostly visual storytelling. Years later, I got a job working at a Blockbuster Video in NJ in 2000. Despite regularly taking advantage of their free rentals for employees, special order requests, and being able to access any Blockbuster’s inventory listings, I could never find a copy of The Blood of Heroes. The only US VHS release was out of print, and unlike other 80s cult films it did not get an internet fueled surge of popularity to get it re-released in the late 90’s.
The US, Japanese, and German posters (please go to www.filmonpaper.com to see more).
Fortunately, the movie kept a small following in Europe (under the name Salute of the Jugger), to the point of the fictional sport of the film, jugger, being turned into a real one still played to this day. It stayed in print fairly regularly there, and, following a 2001 DVD release, Lions Gate released the US cut of the film on DVD in the US and Canada in 2003. Like plenty of budget DVDs, this was taped off someone’s worn out VHS copy, and looks and sounds awful, but at least I could finally see it again.
It holds up! Made in the template of Mad Max 2, it’s a movie with minimal dialogue but great visual continuity. Except instead of being about remnants of humanity warring over gasoline, it’s about remnants of humanity using the game of jugger to distract themselves from the toils of life. The story follows Sallow (Rutger Hauer) a player exiled from the leagues who wanders the wasteland with his team, winning games against the champions of each town. They soon run into Kidda (Joan Chen), who works her way onto the team, after some ups and downs they win a major game, the end.
Watching it again, I realized why this movie was so easily forgotten, on the surface it’s extremely basic and typical. Australia as a filming location for a blasted wasteland was already a dime a dozen in 1989, and car part wearing post apocalyptic wanderers eking out a meager survival is a premise almost as worn out as the underdog sports story that is the film’s plot.
And yet, The Blood of Heroes remains one of my favorite movies in either genre. The the cast here is great and it was actually directed by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner‘s co-writer). Besides Hauer and Chen, the team is rounded out by Delroy Lindo, Anna Katarina, and a young Vincent D’Onofrio. Their coach, played by Gandhi MacIntyre, stands out as well. The camera loves this guy, with Peoples often cutting to his cheering encouragement as he shows equal amounts of happiness at Joan Chen whether she’s deftly maneuvering around the field or in the process of graphically biting an opposing player’s ear off.
This is the key to the movie’s success. Everything is designed to sell the setting. There isn’t a wasted shot in the movie and most of the actors sport some convincing makeup. Almost every career jugger looks like they had their face smashed in at some point. It’s impressive that with only the most minimal verbal explanation the movie is able to create a setting where the rules of the game are clear, along with a clear social structure and class system. As Sallow and his team become more successful, Kidda wants to escape her meager town for good by getting the attention of a brutal jugging league managed by the rulers of a network of underground cities.
Pretty much everyone in this movie is a huge badass all the time.
Things get interesting here because life in the underground cities is pretty much the same as it is on the surface, the only difference being electric lights and better food only accessible by the upper crust of underground society. The most ruthless of these rich folk is the brilliantly named Lord Vile, played by the great Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter himself from Mad Max
). Soon after he first appears in the movie, we learn he was the one responsible for Sallow’s exile from the league. It’s mentioned a couple of times throughout the movie that if you can survive in the actual league, “they almost treat you like you’re one of them.” A pretty bleak picture is painted in that you have to be a consistently brutal athlete or born into nobility to not lead a mostly miserable life. The filmmakers went to the trouble of showing off the food the elite have access too, an assortment of large, meaty lizards and giant insects, while everyone else in the movie is shown to subsist on portions of lanky rat, cat and dog.
I love the way Joan Chen’s Kidda is written here and the way Chen plays the part too. In a lesser sports movie she’d start out a nobody and gradually become more and more confident. Here, in a setting where even the weakest jugger is a hero to the common surface dweller, her method of joining Sallow’s team is pretty daring. She notices one of their players injured his leg in a previous game. So she when she steps in, she taunts this guy and spends as much time as she can breaking this guy’s leg to the point of no return. After the match she then follows them out into the desert and convinces Sallow to let her replace their now disabled teammate. The guy with the broken leg (Dog Boy, played by Justin Monjo) then refuses to be carried any further, choosing to die alone in the desert rather than live a life where he can’t play.
Kidda (Joan Chen) beats down and bites the ear off of an opponent as her coach (Gandhi MacIntyre) beams with pride.
In an age where some stars can be very specific about how hurt or weak they can appear to be on film, it’s refreshing to see every actor in the movie willing to endure a similar level of brutality during the film’s jugger matches. It complements the costume design as well, as on top of the makeup each person’s jugger equipment is just personalized enough that you can tell each player apart on top of instantly knowing their team, even while players’ faces are covered up a variety of masks, helmets and goggles. The costume design in general is pretty consistent here. Everything is made of tires and scrap metal. While it lacks the flair of Mad Max 2‘s S&M inspired cops and pro wrestler marauders, it’s a pretty grounded choice. With scrap metal and tires, the film’s costume designers went with the two things we are assured to have a massive quantity of compared to any other material in a world that’s had its modern infrastructure removed.
It’s only when the movie delves into the underground city that we see jugger teams wearing actual equipment. Fancier materials like silk still exist but are only available to this movie’s one percent. The body armor everyone wears is great, as the actors (and their stunt people) are able to move around enough to pretty much be able to play the game for real. Joan Chen in particular stands out here with her character’s extreme agility compared to everyone else in the movie.
The two coolest ways the people of the setting have repurposed things are the use of dog skulls and sprockets. To enter the underground cities one has to pay with a sufficient amount of bolts or other small construction piece so the city can maintain itself. This is awesome because outside of the cities everyone just seems to barter food and clothes. The dog’s skulls are even better though, in the absence of materials and skills to mass produce a common football, the dog’s skull makes a perfect elliptical but light “ball” for the players to fight over. When a team wins a match they get to keep the skull used for it, and each is marked up with what city it came from and who’s held it. It’s a great way to show how the game and its players have become the only major cultural touchstone that unites the movie’s sparse population.
This utilitarian approach to the film’s setting also stands out due to its inspiration. People’s script and direction, again on the surface seems inspired by Mad Max 2. But at the same time, the cynicism of his script’s stark class inequality and the short but fast and brutally expedient combat is more stylistically reminiscent of Kurosawa. This is interesting as George Miller directly cites Yojimbo as being a major influence on Mad Max 2. Long past Sergio Leone getting sued over A Fistful of Dollars, we can trace Kurosawa’s vast influence all the way to an Australian future sport movie from 1989.
Another way it stands out for an 80s action movie, is that it’s refreshing to see Kidda’s gender not factor into how the story plays out. The teams have both male and female players and both are held in equally high regard by spectators. On the surface this doesn’t seem like a big deal but in general post apocalyptic cinema often ignorantly uses explicit scenes of sexual violence as a lazy way to say that life in the futuristic wasteland is harsh, as if to say these are things that do not happen today. Instead, the only threat of such is delivered to Kidda early on as a pre-game taunt in response to her threatening to break a player’s leg. When each game is done, the winning team is allowed to party and have their fill of food and drink from whatever town they’re in. The town’s young men and women also all step up for a chance to be chosen by the winning team members for a one night stand, a concept that anyone I show the movie to says is bizarre, but was in reality a pretty realistic thing to include in the movie.
Gandhi (Gandhi MacIntyre) fixes up Sallow’s (Rutger Hauer) eye.
I also love how time is kept while jugging. A timekeeper has three piles of one hundred stones, and throws them one by one at a makeshift gong. So each game consists of three periods of one hundred seconds each. This also works great for the film itself as, despite the lack of technology we’re used to now, there’s still a “timer” to cut back to now and then to keep up the tension during the games.
Despite all these great details and little touches that help realize the setting and give the actors something to work with, the movie remains mostly forgotten. Even now, it is generally out of print, and most releases of it on home video have some combination of an awful transfer or terrible sound. There also isn’t really a definitive cut of the film, as the European release, Salute of the Jugger, is about twelve minutes longer. It has a longer ending and a bit more dialogue, but I actually prefer the leaner 90 minute cut we got in the US. While the cut scenes are a nice curiosity, most are not particularly interesting (the tax collection scene) or very redundant (characters talking out loud about things the actors’ body language has already made clear).
Even after a few DVD releases along with, finally, a Scandinavian blu-ray release throughout the early 2000s, it remains fairly obscure outside of Europe. I talk this movie up any chance I get as I ended up liking for more than just the nostalgia of learning about it from WPIX.