I know I’m one of the few out there that really, sincerely likes Waterworld, and that might cast doubt on my taste, but I also really, sincerely like The Blood Of Heroes. I’m certain that almost all of this movie’s appeal, to me, is due to the always cool and charismatic Rutger Hauer and the equally charismatic and paaaaaaiiinfully sexy Joan Chen. Don’t argue – Joan Chen is a sexy tough-as-nails wasteland peasant.
This post will be an interesting first for me, as I’ve twisted the arm of a dear friend and fellow writer and movie buff into doing it on my behalf. I will, of course, jump in after his review to throw my own two cents into the stagnant, poisoned well, but without further ado, Wastelanders, meet Nick “The Dream” Weaver:
The Blood of Heroes is basically a movie about Quidditch. I am speaking kind of sarcastically here, but largely that’s what it is. A ragtag group of misfits play a strange game with lots of esoteric elements and unexplained rules. Except instead of magic teens on brooms it’s big dusty burly people beating the shit out of each other with bars and chains. So you know, it’s a pretty enjoyable experience if you’re into that sort of thing.
Aside from the post-apocalyptic sheen, it’s your typical sports movie story structure. Rutger Hauer plays Sallow, the head coach of an underdog team with a hard head and a tainted past to atone for. His team is admired by peasant girl Kidda, notable for being portayed by Joan Chen, aka Josie Packard from Twin Peaks. She’s the kid-rookie aspiring to greatness in “The League,” which is always kind of spoken about in cryptic turns. So of course she impresses Rutger’s team with her skills, which in this universe also includes essentially murdering the player she replaces, you know how it is. Kidda grows closer to Sallow, at one point she fucks Gomer Pyle which I really enjoyed, and then finally they all make it to THE BIG GAME. Which requires capital letters to say because everyone knows the importance of THE BIG GAME.
If there’s a fault to The Blood of Heroes it’s the way in which it never drifts from this template. There’s absolutely no chance this team won’t go on to absolutely destroy in THE BIG GAME. Once they do inevitably win, that’s just it. That’s the end of the story. “They won.” Most of the other characters go unnamed and can really only be identified by what minority they represent within the group. The black guy. The big guy. The woman. The old man. Etc. The apocalyptic setting, while certainly pretty, never takes the time to hint at anything bigger going on. Sure, the presence of some sort of underground super society where all the rich hide out and reenact their favorite details of Greco-Roman culture is interesting, but never really leads to anything else. There’s vague classism at play here, but the script doesn’t seem interested in examining it. The genre becomes just that, a genre, used as a sort of veneer to mask what’s the simplistic competition narrative beneath it.
However, if you can get past all that, there’s fun to be had in that. Tiny character moments, most if not all involving Rutger’s Sallow, play upon those emotional buttons we like to have pushed: Former brothers turned against each other in the name of bloodsport. The need to impress an authority figure. The best comparison I can make in my limited experience of pop culture would be watching the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights. I don’t care about football. I barely understand football. But in the moment, I deeply care about the outcome of that final game, if only because I care about the players. A similar effect is happening here, if watered down by the lack of characterization. Perhaps it’s the surrogate father/daughter relationship between Sallow and Kidda that provides the heart. When he holds her back at the end and commands her to “walk, slowly,” it’s hard not to share in that sense of pride. It’s a movie about victory, about the thrill of the game, for the geeky audience that might not understand it.
I pretty much agree with Nick’s assessment, though the “Walk…slowly” moment nearly brings me to man-tears every time I see it. You see, the game of… well, “The Game” as it’s known in the movie, is a very simple football/rugby/combat hybrid in which (in the film, anyway) the first score ends the game. The players have three “thirds” of 100 stones each in which to make said score, but once a score is made, the show’s over, folks. The Game has since, of course, been organized into a much safer team sport, in the real world, called Jugger.
There are five players per team: three enforcers, a chain, and a quick. The quick is the only person that can touch the ball, in this case called a “jugg” and consisting of a sinewy dog skull. The two quicks start off in the middle of a small circle and literally fight for possession of the jugg, during which time they are immune to attacks from any other players. Once they leave the circle, however, the enforcers, armed with weighted poles, try to beat the shit out of the quick and keep them from scoring. Since no other player can touch the jugg, it’s basically an escort mission turned team field sport, with each team’s chains (named so because they are armed with big fucking chains) and enforcers attempt to protect their own quick and simultaneously cripple the opposing quick, while the quicks themselves battle over the jugg. Eventually, someone finds an opening, breaks toward the opposing goal (a spike sticking up from the ground) and scores (jams the dog skull on the spike).
Now that you know the basic rules, let’s look more closely at the character of Kidda. Kidda is young, small, and inexperienced. Sallow recognizes that she’s fast, and has obvious raw talent, but as is evident in the first game, speed and talent do not a successful quick make. Quicks need to also be FUCKING TOUGH. Quicks absorb so much punishment during a game, that, literally, the only reason Sallow agrees to take on Kidda as an apprentice is because his current quick, Dog Boy, gets crippled in the game against Kidda’s team (mostly by Kidda’s ruthless style of fighting) and gets left out in the desert to die. Career ending injury equals life ending injury.
As the movie progresses, we see that Kidda is willing to be downright savage against her opponents. Not only does she never again bat a pretty eyelash at the fact that she directly caused the death of a fellow player, but routinely foregoes scoring in favor of physically brutalizing the opposing quick – something she also has a talent for. At one point, she even bites off the ear of the opposing quick in a primal display of blood lust.
Personally, I dig it. Determination and talent are sexy. Kidda is sexy.
In the final game, the League team is clearly more talented than Sallow’s band of misfits, but there’s one thing they don’t have – Sallow. During the first round, it’s pure endurance that pulls our heroes through – something never before accomplished by a challenging team. I have to take this opportunity to hail the unsung hero of round 1, Big Climber (Anna Katarina). Big Climber willingly takes the role as the tank (damage magnet) in order to distract the League team’s best enforcer from Kidda. The effort pays off, but ends up crippling Big Climber with a broken leg. The exact same injury that befell Dog Boy – an injury which we’ve already seen spells death in the wasteland.
When the second round begins, we see a shift – the emphasis no longer seems to be on scoring, but on decommissioning the members of the League team. Sallow takes out the seemingly unbeatable juggernaut enforcer that crippled Big Climber and Kidda beats the opposing quick into a motionless pulp. As she rises to sprint for the goal, Sallow stops her. She seems to realize, for the first time, that no players remain to oppose her. There is no one to be “quick”er than – no one to avoid or endure. Sallow tells her to “Walk… slowly” as a show of victory, but what we’re seeing is Sallow essentially removing the sport from “The Game”. By turning it into a literal street fight, and physically defeating their opponents, Sallow and Kidda have turned the scoring aspect of the game into a formality. They’ve already won before the jugg has even been placed. It’s almost as if by saying “Walk… slowly”, Sallow is really saying, “We’ve already won, now go put that dog head down and end the game.” It’s for this reason, I think, that that I get emotional at this moment.
Anyway, another aspect of the movie that you should check out is the costuming. I don’t know who did the costumes, but they’re extremely interesting. You can spot quite a few bits of improvised armor that are more than a little creative, and very well constructed. Go check this one out, wastelanders… and walk… slowly.