We transport ourselves to the far-flung future dystopia of three years ago to take in some Rollerball, and an indeterminate post-apocalyptica for a round of The Blood of Heroes, or The Salute of the Jugger if you’d rather. Are either of these sci-fi sports worth purchasing a season ticket for? Tune in and find out!
Set in the futuristic dystopia of, checks notes, 2018, Rollerball introduces us to the most famous practitioner of the titular sport, James Caan’s Jonathan E, playing the deadly sport for the Houston team in what would be an international league, were nations still a thing. They’ve gone out of fashion, apparently after some nasty warfare business, with all decisions now left to the care of, well, business, with corporations running the world, and your life.
And also Jonathan’s life, as a corporate bigwig tells him to retire. Most of the film’s world-building comes through Jonathan’s quest to find out why he’s being asked to retire, a quest which mostly meets with dead ends and false hope while getting all the more dangerous for him, as he continues to defy his corporate masters.
This ultimately leads to a deadlier than usual final game of the season, an already highly dangerous fusion of roller derby, the videogame Speedball, with a twist of Roman-era gladiatorial chariot racing, now with all rules suspended. Wait, there were rules before?
This was, somehow, my first dalliance with Rollerball, at least as far as my addled memory goes, and I’m left a bit torn. One one hand,I do want to automatically applaud films that don’t dump reams of exposition on you and Rollerball relies on the audience following Jonathan along as he wakes up from the apparent slumber of the decadence people are living in, and questioning how the system came to be and how the world really works.
On the other hand, I’m not convinced Jonnyboy actually finds a great many answers, so you’re left to fill in the gaps yourself with a lack of information that encourages more idle guessing than informed speculation. I mean, that whole “consulting the world’s central computer and its mad scientist keeper” sequence practically rubs your nose in its refusal to be drawn.
That aside, there’s not much of a concrete message other than “corporations bad, freedom good”, and while we’re here we should also point out that the world corporations are building currently has little in common with what Rollerball is serving us. However, even if I didn’t appreciate the answers, or lack of them, I was drawn along enough by the questions.
On the more nuts and bolts level, I’d say this more or less holds up. The sport itself makes for some fun actions sequences – I could have maybe done with them being cut back a little, but then again, it is sort of the basis of the film. Director Norman Jewison keeps things moving along well enough for the era, although, bear in mind this is pre Star Wars 70’s sci-fi, so expect a very different pacing from modern works.
James Caan’s fine in the role, but the character doesn’t have all that much of an opportunity to either grow or really show much emotion, although those few opportunities are grabbed well enough. Cinematography from Douglas Slocombe keeps things interesting, even if the far flung future of Rollerball‘s 2018 holds little relation to the historical record.
So then, I don’t regret watching this, and there’s enough interesting ideas here to give this a recommendation even if it didn’t blow my doors off.
What to say of The Blood of Heroes, AKA The Salute of the Jugger, a Rutger Hauer movie from 1989? Well, we could start by saying it’s a Rutger Hauer movie from 1989 and leave it at that, and I think we all know what to do with that information one way or another.
If I were feeling a little more charitable (and to be clear I don’t, but I like you listener, and I want to see you do well in life) I would proffer this much; The Blood of Heroes is a movie set in some dystopian, apocalyptic future where teams of roving folk known as Juggers roam the desolate, sandy landscape of wherever, inexplicably plying their trade at a sport which involves punching each other a lot and spiking a dog’s skull onto a stick. Why a dog’s skull? Who knows. Certainly not writer-director David Webb Peoples, because baked into his screenplay comes the kind of ambiguity that affords a writer who’s clearly forgotten the “why” of it all the opportunity of not having to explain any of it.
Hauer is Sallow, the de facto Captain of the Jugger squad upon whom the movie’s plot centres. The team is rounded out by Delroy Lindo, Anna Katarina, Vincent D’Onofrio, Justin Monjo and Gandhi MacIntyre, the names of whose characters I care not to remember. There is some vague mention that Sallow was once a professional Jugger who played in a league but was outcast, and to this end he wants to take his team back to the underground city where much of humanity now resides in order to take on the pros and reclaim his status. This is to be our hero’s journey, though I’m not sure I’d declare Sallow to be much of a hero, and it’s about all the explanation you’re going to get as to the where, when, what, why and how of this shambles.
The other future sport we spoke about today had at least something to say about capitalist society, which sets it apart from a lot of other sporting movies which typically fall into the categories of biography and/or redemptive arc. The way in which The Blood of Heroes cunningly sets itself apart is in its resolute refusal to yield any kind of salient commentary or observation on anyone, any thing, any time, any place or any circumstance, and is instead a rudderless flotilla of flotsam in search of a plot to justify it’s existence.
One of the central notions of the movie, that the sport played by Juggers (are we to assume it is called Jug? Again, we don’t know) is somehow significant enough to be a means of establishing some societal standing, somewhat falls apart upon observation of said sport, which is clearly the product of a fever dream and not at all a practical demonstration of a team activity. Having established a series of designated positions and assigned each a tool or weapon, the onset of the game is marked by an immediate and complete
shambles in which everyone basically runs at each other and starts punching, while the “Kwik,” whose job it is to…be quick, runs for the pointy stick onto which the dog’s skull must be thrust. The sum total of any tactics involved seems to fall upon the person whose role it is to wield a big net made out of chain link, swinging it wildly above their head in an occasional attempt to somehow shield the Kwik. For a movie which pins its hopes on selling you an authentic future sport, David Webb Peoples sure hasn’t spent a lot of time
thinking it through, and the result wouldn’t look out of place at lunch break on a primary school playground. Minus the chain link, mind. And the dog skull. Probably. Maybe?
Anyhoo, Sallow’s squad eventually takes on Kidda (a disappointingly non-Scouse Joan Chen) as their new Kwik when their existing one, the affectionately monikered Dog Boy, ends up with a gammy leg. Making their way to the underground city in a lift that takes so long to descend that they all catch a sleep on the way down, the movie does at least attempt some world building, and I grudgingly accept that I liked a couple of the ideas offered therein. I also quite liked Mad Max cast-off Max Fairchild as Gonzo, an old league acquaintance of Sallow’s, and the only character whose general demeanour of melancholia manages to come across as vaguely interesting, as opposed to poorly written or fleshed out.
If I remember correctly the film climaxes in Kidda being offered a role within the league, but I can’t be certain as a week has passed since I watched it, and even the most mundane of tasks in my day job have quite easily supplanted it within my memory. The problem with this outcome as it is presented is that I found no real reason to care about Kidda, meaning her ascension to the league fosters little within me beyond complete ambivalence. I also think we’re expected to see it as some sort of redemption by proxy for Sallow, but again, I have no reason to feel invested in his emotional wellbeing, so I genuinely couldn’t care
The Blood of Heroes is little other than a Mad Max wannabe, so desperate to fill that franchise’s boots that it even borrows the Australian outback as a location and some of the cast. I’m really glad that Peoples directed nothing else after this and chose to hone his talents as a writer instead, because we got a couple
of decent movies out of his word processor in the decades since. We probably also ought to be glad that Lindo and D’Onofrio’s careers had enough momentum to push through, but I wouldn’t blame them if they left this mess off their CVs. Six million dollars on this shit. Remarkable…
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