The The Blood of Heroes / Salute of the Jugger (1989) ***

     The first thing you see in The Blood of Heroes, an Australian-American post-apocalypse movie from absolutely the very last moment when it would have made any kind of sense to produce such a thing, is a title card reading:

People no longer remembered the Golden Age of the 20th Century. They didnít remember the miraculous technology or the cruel wars that followed. They didnít remember when Juggers first played The Game, or how it came to be played with a dog skullÖ

     Thatís an extremely strange note on which to begin a We Have Seen the Future, and It Sucks flick, even granting that the entire subgenre had long since reached the point of diminishing returns by 1989, and that it had become difficult to drum up even a shadow of the excitement once generated by The Road Warrior, or for that matter the original Mad Max. It seems to imply that the focus of the film is going to be on some kind of athletic competition, rather than on the usual embattled efforts to rebuild a semblance of civilization in the aftermath of nuclear annihilation or ecological collapse. Whatís even weirder is that The Blood of Heroes isnít selling us a bill of goods by opening the way it does. This really is a post-apocalyptic sports movie, and it really does owe more to Rocky or Raging Bull than to any of the obvious After the End touchstones.

     Arguably the biggest challenge that writer/director David Webb Peoples set for himself in The Blood of Heroes is that itís about a sport that doesnít exist*, and yet it employs the usual jock-flick technique of using the contests themselves as its dramatic set pieces. For this movie to work, then, we have to understand the rules of the Game. Furthermore, both the Game itself and the social infrastructure supporting it need to be at least somewhat plausible. (Witness Rollerball for an example of what happens when a movie about a fictional sport fails on both those counts.) Remarkably, Peoples not only accomplishes that, but does it without a single obtrusive exposition dump. A few of the details remain obscure, to be sure. I couldnít tell you, for instance, what differentiates the roles of the Slash, the Drive, and the Backchargeó the three heavily armored and preferably enormous players who wield two-handed cudgels with entangling hooks on one endó but itís obvious enough that theyíre collectively supposed to make life difficult for the Quick, the player charged with carrying the dog skull to the stake in the opposing teamís territory that represents the goal. The Griffer, meanwhile, protects the Quick by swinging a chain flail over both their heads, making it dangerous to approach too closely. Players of the Game, regardless of role, are referred to as Juggers, and Juggers of either sex can play any position. Each team also has a coach who calls plays from the sidelines, and thereís a neutral timekeeper who counts down the rounds by tossing a hundred small stones against a metal gong at several-second intervals. A single goal suffices for victory, but tied matches are still possible. They occur when neither side is able to score for three full hundred-stone rounds. And the breaks between rounds not only give the Juggers on the court a chance to catch their breath, but also permit each team to field replacements for those whoíve been injured too badly to keep playing. Most of that is made sufficiently plain, with barely a word of overt explanation, by the end of the match that forms the centerpiece of the first act. Itís impressively efficient, especially coming from a late-80ís exploitation picture.

     Anyway, we meet our first team of Juggers as they march into the poor desert farming and mining community of Samchin. Their de facto leader is a veteran Slash called Sallow (Rutger Hauer, from Split Second and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who used to play for Red Cityís League team in his youth. That all ended when he became too indiscreet about the affair he was having with the wife/concubine/mistress/whatever of a town luminary known as Lord Vile (Hugh Keays-Byrne, of The Chain Reaction and Stone), which is why heís now tromping around the wasteland, Jugging for dirt farmersí pocket change. The rest of Sallowís team is good, but none of them are League material. Still, their abilities are such that it comes as a big surprise to everyone how hard they have to work in order to beat the Samchin team, thanks in no small part to the sheer tenacity of the relief Jugger who takes over for their original Quick after heís put out of action in the first round, a girl by the name of Kidda (Joan Chen, from Cyber Wars and The Night Stalker). Kidda is faster and more agile than Sallowís Quick, Dogboy (Justin Monjo, of Dark City and Badlands 2005), and my God but she can take a punch. Dogboy canít shake her at all, and itís only after Sallow pounds her into the dirt that heís able to seize final control of the skull, and carry it to the stake.

     The match in Samchin is going to be Dogboyís last for a very long time, though, if indeed he ever plays again. He comes out of it with one of his legs smashed to shit, and the post-apocalyptic Outback isnít exactly a world-leading center of orthopedic medicine. Kidda takes the visiting teamís misfortune as her opportunity to get out of town, offering herself as a replacement. Sallow and his companions are in no position to turn her down, because theyíve already got upcoming matches scheduled. Better to go into them with someone of proven potential than to take their chances on a complete stranger. Once Kidda is more or less broken in, however, it becomes obvious that the team as a whole is more formidable now than they ever were with Dogboy in the role of Quick. In fact, they become so good that Kidda and Gar the Griffer (Vincent DíOnofrio, from Strange Days and Sinister), who had been the youngest of the lot until she joined up, begin lobbying to challenge one of the League teams to an exhibition match. Evidently thatís how players from the boonies earn professional notice. If the League team accepts the challenge, and the upstart team makes a sufficiently strong showing for itself (keeping a pro Quick away from the stake for longer than 20 stones is considered an exceptional performance), there might even be League contracts in the offing.

     Of course, itís one thing for a couple of kids whoíve never set foot in any of the Nine Cities to dream big. Veteran Juggers know, though, that League play is on a whole different level from what happens out here in the wasteland. The strength, speed, skill, and raw bloodthirstiness of top-ranked Juggers are such that even a relatively successful challenge is apt to end a formerly up-and-coming playerís career. Also, the only settlement with a League team that Sallow and his followers could plausibly reach on foot is Red Cityó the very town that Sallow got chased out of all those years ago. Lord Vile isnít going to be happy to see him again, and might very well torpedo the teamís challenge out of spite. And in point of fact, that could be one of the better possible outcomes, since the other obvious form of revenge available to Vile would be to have one of the Red City Juggers cripple or kill Sallow in the arena. Sure, Gonzo, the Red City Slash (Max Fairchild, from Mad Max and Howling III: The Marsupials), is an old friend of Sallowís from his League days, but I wouldnít want to bet on sportsmanship and camaraderie against the pull of a guy who gets to put ďLordĒ in front of his name. Just the same, the more Sallow thinks about it, the more he wants to give it a try, just to show those fuckers back home that heís still got it. Mbulu (Delroy Lindo, of Congo and The One) and Big Cimber (Anna Katarina, from Omega Doom and the Star Trek reboot), the teamís Drive and Backcharge, think the whole idea is insane, and flatly refuse to go along. But when that doesnít sway their leader, and when Ghandi the coach (Dead End Drive-Inís Ghandi MacIntyre) fails to join their revolt, the two reluctant Juggers square their shoulders and fall into line. Better to go out in a blaze of foredoomed glory than to wind up like poor Dogboy in some little nowhere Outback village, right?

     When I said before that The Blood of Heroes owes a lot to Rocky and Raging Bull, I meant not only that it employs a lot of traditional sports movie plotting techniques, but also that it shares those specific filmsí New Hollywood sensibilities with regard to pacing, mood, and narrative focus. For all the bloodshed and violence that invariably attend the Game, The Blood of Heroes rarely feels much like an action movie. Most of the time, itís more a melancholy meditation on aging and loss that just happens to take place after the destruction of the world as we know it. Sallow, Mbulu, Big Cimber, and Ghandi are all has-beens, with little to look realistically forward to except the gradual failing of their much-abused bodies. The Game gives them a leg up on the average inhabitant of a place like Samchin, but they still lead pretty miserable lives, and probably shorter ones than the people who come to see them, to boot. What they have, though, is the closest thing to glamour that still exists out there in the wasteland, which is what draws people like Gar and Kidda into their orbitó and thatís what, in the end, makes the older Juggers court seemingly surefire destruction by challenging Red Cityís League team, too. They canít not try to live up to their images, even when doing so looks like the next best thing to suicide.

     Then thereís a second dimension of loss thatís apparent only to the viewer, as we compare the world of the film to our own. David Webb Peoples, as both writer and director, devotes a lot of time to the minutiae of day-to-day existence, which slows the film to a weary plodó but in a good way. After all, weary plodding is what life in this dilapidated hellscape is all about. We see lots of wiry, weathered people chopping desiccated crops out of the exhausted soil under a blistering sun, amid swirling clouds of choking dust. We see entire villages built among the sunbleached tailings of long-extinct mines, with marketplaces you can practically smell through the screen, where spit-roasted dog is by far the most appetizing merchandise on offer. Thereís a delightfully un-erotic sex scene in which Kidda and Gar take each other to bed right after a victorious match, but quickly discover that theyíre each too covered with aching bruises and freshly stitched cuts to enjoy touching or being touched. And in what might be the smartest development of all, Red City turns out to be a dystopian underground warren where even the most privileged citizens have no experience of natural light or fresh air, and where lodgings for travelers consist of cantilevered bunks mounted in tiers hundreds high in the condensation-slick walls of a seemingly infinite subterranean abyss. None of these people know what theyíre missing, but we do.

     Maybe part of the reason why The Blood of Heroes feels like a mutant New Hollywood film is because the script actually dates from that period. Peoples wrote it all the way back in 1977ó which is to say before Mad Max, but after Rollerballó and it was while he was working on Blade Runner with Rutger Hauer five years later that The Blood of Heroes first started trudging toward actual production. Its development was therefore at least somewhat insulated from the post-apocalypse boom of the early 80ís, which was able to influence the look of the film, but came too late to affect the core of the story. Itís unclear to me how Peoples managed to steer clear of anxious producers demanding more and bigger action even so, but fortunately even the heavily cut US version (which, among other things, somewhat mutes the downer undercurrent to the superficially happy ending) preserves enough oddball character for The Blood of Heroes to remain a post-apocalypse movie like no other Iíve seen.



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* Or at any rate, it was a sport that didnít exist until some weirdo Blood of Heroes superfans in Germany devised a considerably less lethal version of it to play at their periodic get-togethers.