Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Film Review: THE BLOOD OF HEROES (1989, David Webb Peoples)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Tag-line: "When juggers play there is only one way to live - THE HARD WAY!"
Notable Cast or Crew: Rutger Hauer, Joan Chen, Vincent D'Onofrio, Delroy Lindo, Richard Norton (GYMKATA, dual roles in THE OCTAGON), Max Fairchild (MAD MAX 1 & 2), Anna Katarina (THE GAME, OMEGA DOOM). Written and directed by David Webb Peoples (BLADE RUNNER, LEVIATHAN, SOLDIER, LADYHAWKE, TWELVE MONKEYS, UNFORGIVEN, THE DAY AFTER TRINITY). Again, I really don't know why Peoples isn't a household name.
Best one-liner: " I don't like brutality. I like heroics. I like the blood of heroes."

Rutger Hauer, meet Joan Chen. Now a lot of people might know, say, that Rutger Hauer and somebody like Brion James have worked together four times, but the fact that he and TWIN PEAKS darling Joan Chen have appeared in four films together, ranging from 1989 (THE BLOOD OF HEROES) to 2010 (TONIGHT AT NOON) came to me as a bit of a shock. They're like the latter-day 20th Century Sci-Fi Hepburn and Tracy. Well, kind of. And that's not even the most puzzling facet of Mr. Hauer's career- that honor may well belong to his slideshow-esque appearance in the RAMBO III video game (1989) when he had nothing to do with any RAMBO film... Anyway, THE BLOOD OF HEROES:

"People no longer remembered the Golden Age of the 20th Century. They didn't remember the miraculous technology or the cruel wars that followed. They didn't remember when Juggers first played The Game or how it came to be played with a dog skull..."

Now, for being a movie which, even on DVD, has been given all the tender loving care of a faded, murky, full-screen battered VHS, THE BLOOD OF HEROES is shockingly classy. One of the first things to set it apart from its fourth-rate, MAD MAX-inspired brethren is an enchanting, mystical score by Todd Bokelheide (HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE, BALLETS RUSSES). Kind of like post-civilization Bernard Herrmann, the work is punctuated by primal drums and creative, peculiar percussion. It's an epic, intriguing, and mysterious soundtrack, and that's just the sort of thing this film requires- it's easy for your skeptical mind to take the film seriously when, on some level, your gut already is.

Now the aesthetic here is definitely on the same page as MAD MAX- BEYOND THUNDERDOME (not to mention that it was filmed in Australia and features MAD MAX actors like Max Fairchild, and can I say 'Max' any more in this sentence?), and it's blood, sand, leather, corroded metal, and burlap sacks -to the max. Our story follows a team of impoverished Juggers as they fight their way through the rust belt bush leagues and on to the tournament of the 'Nine Cities'- the last vestige of wealth and culture- where bluebloods have hoarded supplies, amassed wealth, and buttressed their fortune with underground walls and towers to keep out the common rabble- unless, of course, they're prepared to compete at bloodsports for the richies' silk-stockinged amusement.

And, basically, in a barren, poverty-stricken world, Jugging is your only shot at upward mobility.

But the big question here, which I'm sure that you're finding yourself asking yourself is– WHAT IS JUGGING? Well, I'll tell you to the best of my ability. Okay. Two big dudes smack the shit out of each other with big hammer lookin' things- (think lacrosse sticks made from barbed wire?). Then a couple of other dudes whip razor chains at each other as more guys clobber each other with hooks and try to pin each other down. Then we got two diminutive running-back types (called 'qwiks') who pummel and thrash their way to the 'ball'- a dog skull- and then try to make it past each other and this chaotic shitstorm of hooks and chains and bludgeons and triumphantly thrust the dog skull onto a spike in the ground.


Then you win. Meanwhile, some jag-off is tossing stones against a gong or a piece of sheet metal, timing the whole thing.

The longer you last, the more impressive Juggers you are. Then the Juggers bond afterward. The winners get to keep the dog skull, and sometimes the hosting town buys them a round of drinks. No hard feelings. Everybody's gotta earn a living.

If you're a fan of these sorts of films like I clearly am, you can see that the possibilities for heroics, brutality, and sheer ridiculousness are sky high. This is my kind of sports movie.


Rutger Hauer, as 'Sallow,' leads our heroic band of dust bowl gladiators.

He used to play in the Nine Cities, but now he's a washed-up P.O.S. with a bum eye, a bad attitude, and a lotta regrets. His squad includes 'Young Gar' (Vincent D'Onofrio), the screw-up kid with a heap of raw talent:

'Big Cimber' (Anna Katarina), a stern, ass-kickin' lady; 'Mbulu' (Delroy Lindo), the crusty veteran:

and Dog-Boy (Justin Monjo), the qwik. But when Dog-Boy is hideously injured, a local peasant gal who's short on brawn but long on moxie (played, naturally, by Joan Chen) steps into the ring.

Joan later said of THE BLOOD OF HEROES, “I loved that movie. It was a big departure for me. The part wasn’t written for an Asian woman. The part was actually written for a rugged, Amazonian-type woman. I am actually kind of short and small, but they changed it for me.”

Rutger Hauer: "I like scars."
Joan Chen: "..."

Rutger's up to his old tricks and exuding sheer forcefulness of presence- narrowing his eyes, pursing his lips nearly to the point of blowing homoerotic air-kisses,

and believably thumping the shit out of his opponents.

A head butt may be forthcoming.

Joan Chen takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. She even gets to bite some poor sap's ear off.


But, on the whole, the proceedings are surprisingly low key, even restrained, and this actually works in the film's favor. The team heads to the Nine Cities, where there's fights, romance, old friends, grudges, fixers, cheaters, and creepy pasty rich people who get a little thrill out of licking Jugger blood. Richard Norton (GYMKATA, THE OCTAGON) even shows up as a shitkicker named 'Bone.'

Bone reporting for duty.

I'm not gonna reveal how it all turns out, but it gets downright Medieval. Its scope becomes smaller than you'd think, as well– it's not an epochal tale about freedom fighters toppling an evil regime, or however this story would usually be told- it's an intimate look at stoic gang of tough guys ('n gals) who kick some serious ass. Hell, I'll call it the best sport movie since THE RUNNING MAN. But then it just ends. Abruptly. The closing credits begin to roll over the final scene of the movie– what? What is this, a Chabrol film? Some cursory research turned up some answers- apparently, this is a somewhat truncated version. And somewhere out there exists a fourteen-minute longer version from Japan (called by fans, I shit you not, "THE GRAIL OF THE JUGGER") which fleshes out the denouement in a little more detail. Regardless, this is an excellent film, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend not only to futuristic bloodsport movie fans, but to Hauer/Chen aficionados, as well.

And to serious connoisseurs of whappin' and boppin'.

Four stars.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Finally, another review of this film, and a damned decent review at that. I read a review several years ago by some mealy-mouthed, chowder head from ET that was so inept and poorly thought out that I wanted to give the SOB the Rutger Hauer treatment--a good head butt, right between the eyes.

Sean Gill said...

Thanks, Anon.! Truly those who would trivialize THE BLOOD OF HEROES deserve that Rutger Hauer treatment of which you speak!

Anonymous said...

Awesome review ! This is in fact the best and most accurate review on the net. Thank you!

Now, who do we have to pressure to get a proper release out?

Sean Gill said...


Thank you! From what I can tell, Lionsgate owns the U.S. home video rights. In an ideal world, they'd license it to Criterion, but for now I'd even settle for a bare-bones Blu-ray.

Vargre said...

The original cut, Salute of the Juggers, can be found. In fact, I own it. Its worth getting. The extra 15 minutes add a lot to the movie. Especially since part of those 15 mins are the original ending. Im tempted to write what happens. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Ok, im going to. After the Red City match, Kidda and the rest of the team, all save Big Cimba and Sallow, end up recruited to the team. Sallow and Cimba are shown back out in the dog towns, with a new qwik. Sallow says to him, "Play hard, you'll forget the fear." And the movie ends.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for sharing about the director's cut– I'd definitely like to check it out at some point, in a way it sounds a little darker and more poignant.

Anonymous said...

They're dining on monitor lizard, laid out on the buffet like a stuffed whitefish, that clinched it - this film's a winner. Your review does it justice - you get it! The soundtrack deserves a close listen too as you say.