Monday, September 23, 2019

Eat Your Heart Out, Rollerball

A good sports flick is, for me, a great thing, but a good POST-APOCALYPTIC SPORTS FLICK? There's a special place in heaven for that.

Quick Plot: Sometime in the future, the world has become a barren wasteland of dusty agriculture and dog farms. The only real source of entertainment seems to come from "The Game," a rugby-esque sport played by both city professionals and wandering teams. One such group is led by Sallow (the late and always great Rutger Hauer), a former pro league member whose fall from grace now has him eking out a nomadic existence.

When Sallow's team has a particularly violent round of The Game, their "qwik" (think the Quidditch equivalent of a seeker) becomes too injured to carry on. A scrappy farmer's daughter named Kidda (a young and forever kickass Joan Chen) fights her way onto the team, quickly proving her skills and convincing the bitter Sallow to take a chance visiting the big underground city for a chance to go pro. 

To understand what any of this means, it's helpful to have a better picture of The Game, which is awesome and should be an Olympic medal event. The main thrust is simple: there's a dog skull in place of any traditional ball or golden snitch, and the qwik's goal is to impale it on a stake across the field. In his or her way is the equally motivated opposing team's qwik, plus the defense: a slash, drive, and backdrive (typically big dudes or dudettes armed with specific weaponry trying to block qwiks) and the position I'd most definitely fight for: the chain. 

It's exactly what is sounds like: an armored chain-spinner who in the glorious case of The Blood of Heroes, is played by a baby-faced Vincent D'Onofrio.

For all its swordplay, The Blood of Heroes doesn't overdo its violence. In fact, it's probably far more fitting to categorize this film as a sports flick over any other genre.

Written and directed by David Peoples (screenwriter of Twelve Monkeys), The Blood of Heroes is a pure delight for someone like me. Yes, any violent post-apocalyptic sports drama tends to connect, but I have TWO cases of Rollerball that prove there can always be exceptions. 

Why this film isn't discussed more surprises me. Sure, the production values are modest, it being late-era Ozsploitation, and the internet tells me that the game has found some longevity across the world (both under the name "Jugger" and "Blood of Heroes"). As a narrative, it's fairly swift and small, its "big game" played out in a dark indoor black pit of sorts with a fairly small crowd for its first half. But guys, here's the thing: The Blood of Heroes might very well be one of my new favorite sports films.

Does it hold a pomchenko to The Cutting Edge or a full-split foul ball catch to A League of Their Own? No, but its gender politics are on par. The Game is a coed sport and never once is Kidda or her female teammate The Big Climber every questioned for their sex. What's even more progressive is the film's attitude toward sex, which is to say, its total "it's cool" attitude towards sex.

Kidda has sex. She has sex with her teammate, which makes perfect sense, even if there's some truthfully light joking about how doing so after a game is as impossible as it is necessary. Later, Kidda has sex with a different teammate in a scene that is more tender but no less sexy. Her former partner shows absolutely no bitterness or jealousy. In Peoples' world, adults are attracted to each other and act on it, and the consequences are simply that they have a good time.

This shouldn't be revolutionary, but can you name a single film--especially from this era--where that's the case?

While I could have taken an extra hour of world-building in The Blood of Heroes, its smallness is incredibly refreshing and ultimately, very satisfying. We know just enough about Kidda and Sallow to be fully invested in their goals, and their supportive teammates (including a young Delroy Lindo) are intriguing enough to hold up the rest of the film. While the version streaming on Amazon is apparently cut, I found it to be nearly perfectly paced, ending (mild spoiler) on a simple post-game celebration that needs no further exposition. This is a lean, modern sports drama that hits the right emotional beats we've come to expect form our baseball and football flicks, but adds a surprising level of maturity that you simply wouldn't expect to find from a bit of Ozsploitation with a one-eyed Rutger Hauer

High Points
Seriously, this movie even has a last minute aged player coming out of retirement to sub in AND incredibly moment of sportsmanship between rivals. IT IS PURE JOY

Low Points
While it's both a product of a low 1989 budget and mediocre transfer to Amazon Prime, it's still a little frustrating to see how hard it can be to differentiate the two teams during several scenes of gameplay

Lessons Learned
Silk is real, and it is fabulous

If playing The Game with only one eye, the trick is to simply swivel your head a whole lot (or just be as cool as Rutger Hauer)

No one carries the dog boy

I loved many things about The Blood of Heroes, and with its swift 90 minute running time, there is absolutely nothing that should keep you from watching it on Amazon Prime yesterday. Have at it. 

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