"Sometime in the future…only the sport of surviving in a wasted world is the brutal sport of "Jugging."—Back cover of the Blood of Heroes DVD
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, read The Charge a few times and see if you can decipher it. We can determine a few things by deconstructing this puzzling DVD blurb. Blood of Heroes is set some time in the future in a world that is wasted. "Only the sport" suggests that sport is of some importance, and it might be the only thing of importance besides surviving. "Jugging" is a brutal sport. The ellipsis indicates that a piece of additional supporting material has been removed from the main DVD blurb, leaving us with a truncated summary of the original concept. We can also infer that the Lions Gate proofreaders didn't pay close attention to quality control in the cover text.
As it happens, this grammatical deconstruction has remarkable parallels with the DVD itself.
Facts of the Case
It is the future, so you know what that means: some cataclysm or another has wiped civilization off the map. Grungy bands of humans huddle around rubbish fires in hovels constructed of old tires and scrap metal. Daily activities consist of hacking away at dirt clods, arranging piles of rusty gears, and performing basic hygiene rituals such as smearing motor oil across your brow or picking your teeth with old keys.
This monotony of dirt and rust is interrupted when a roving team of Juggers saunters into town. Their leader is Sallow (Rutger Hauer), an experienced and brutal captain. Gar (Vincent D'Onofrio), the goalie, wields his chain lasso with youthful vigor. The locals cower in fascinated fear. To defend their honor and scarce resources, the town must field a Jugging team to compete with the newcomers. The newcomers triumph, but it costs them a teammate. Not just any teammate, but their "quick." The quick is responsible for putting the dog skull on the spike, which ends the game and seals victory.
The strangers are in luck. The local quick, Kidda (Joan Chen), burns with ambition. She wants to leave her dirt shack and wander the decimated outback with Sallow's merry band. And maybe, just maybe, she and Gar can convince Sallow to return to the League of Nine Cities and regain his lost honor.
You must give Blood of Heroes due credit: it sets a focus and adheres to it closely. In this case, the focus is the bloody post-apocalyptic game of Jugging. (Jugging is captured with enough finesse to draw viewers into the game. I think I called out "nice move!" once or twice, even though I'm not an expert on the strategy.) Every shred of plot, character development, mise en scène, cinematography, and editing revolves around Jugging. The credits open to a band of Juggers looking for a match. We watch them play, see the aftermath of the game, and then watch a hungry hopeful join the team. The team walks around playing more matches, until they go to the city and play another match. The credits roll over scenes of victory and defeat.
Given this tunnel vision, I don't know whether to decry the lack of plot and conflict or applaud their adherence to the vision. Blood of Heroes is basically a sports movie set in the post-apocalyptic genre. That's exactly what you get: sports in apocalyptic trappings. Blood of Heroes is so intent on depicting the finer points of Jugging that it trims out the unnecessary elements of both genres. There is no artificial tension where the favored team beats on the underdog until the underdog surges to triumph in a glorious finale. There is no internal conflict within the team, nor external pressure to force them to work together. There is no bad guy, no central conflict, no specific prize on the line. All of that stuff would divert our attention from the focus: Jugging and the people who play it.
Of course, all of that other stuff is what we typically look for in a film. Viewers rarely go into a football movie and think "I'm hoping this movie will clarify some of the finer points of the Cover 2 defense." No, we are more apt to wonder who the bad guy is or ponder what is motivating the team. We like to root for the unrefined hot shot with a dream. We want to see the strife, emotion, and effort that color the game. The plot of Blood of Heroes is so linear that few of those considerations bog down the plot.
Believe you me, this simplicity of plot must be intentional. The director, David Webb Peoples, is not a notable director—in fact, this is his only major directorial effort. As a writer, however, he's been quite successful. He penned sci-fi favorites Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys as well as Unforgiven. It is safe to assume that Peoples has a firm grasp of narrative principles.
I'd be willing to chalk this unsophisticated storytelling up to a failed effort at minimalism, if it weren't for a handful of snags. Rutger Hauer's character is played up throughout the film, as though he has a thorny issue left unresolved. This issue is never brought to light. Instead, we see a pasty councilman make a pathetic attempt to thwart Sallow with no real explanation. The end of the film is wholly unsatisfying. A match is played with nothing of significance on the line. We intuitively root for the Juggers we've been following for the previous 85 minutes, although we could just as easily root for the other team. Their characters are equally honorable, charismatic, and lacking in sympathetic back story.
Even with all of these flaws, I'm tempted to say that Blood of Heroes barely manages to entertain. Unfortunately, the DVD presentation makes such a ringing endorsement difficult.
There are two problems with this DVD that will immediately raise the hackles of any true DVD fan: run time and aspect ratio. Not only does Blood of Heroes trim nearly 15 minutes off of the run time of the original Salute of the Jugger, but it is presented in Pan and Scan. I know neither the content nor aspect ratio of the original film, but I'm incensed that both were trimmed. In this stage of the DVD game, it is unconscionable to release such a neutered version of the film. They even flaunt the issue: as the credits roll, we see the movie continuing and the characters speaking to one another, but we are not privy to the words.
But that's not all! We also get execrable video quality. The contrast is high: overexposed outdoor scenes with blooming highlights sear your eyes, while the interior shots lurk in gloomy pools of unfathomable shadow detail. The rampant grain masks (but does not completely eliminate) egregious compression artifacts. The whole movie does not suffer from these flaws, but they appear with enough frequency to mar the overall presentation. But the judder is always there, as though we were watching the film from the bed of a pickup truck traveling on a gravel road.
Extras? Umm…English subtitles?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You can't hold the actors responsible for the DVD. Hauer, Delroy Lindo, D'Onofrio, and Chen brim with their usual screen presence. The characters are likeable even when they are given little to do.
The post-apocalyptic wasteland is rendered with enough care to impress me. There isn't so much as a stray fast food bag. The mise en scène is thorough and enveloping. Too bad that the society is so hokey. For example, a line of careworn passengers stands waiting for transport to the underground city. They each deposit their fare into a barrel. The fare seems to be little rubber gaskets and cog wheels. Some currency.
If you are a huge fan of one of the actors, and if you don't mind a movie devoid of story, and if you don't care about video quality or original aspect ratio, then you might find this DVD entertaining. Otherwise, you'll probably find greener pastures elsewhere.
Put their skulls on pikes!
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