I had basically no idea what to expect when popping this film in. I guessed it was post-apocalyptic, but that was about it and I’m glad I’d managed to spend my life going spoiler-free because I think I’ve re-discovered one of the great classics of the “Video Shop era”.
We are long post-apocalyptic here. Real civilization is but a distant memory, tyres are used for decoration or protection, outside the “cities” humanity lives in tiny settlements in the desert, known as dog-towns because that’s what they use for meat. Into one of these nondescript villages comes a team of juggers, led by Sallow (Rutger Hauer) with excellent support from Mbulu (Delroy Lindo) and Young Gar (a very young Vincent D’Onofrio).
The players are known as juggers, but the game is just The Game. It’s sort of a super-brutal form of future-rugby, with teams comprising of a “Quick”, a “Chain” and three “Slashers”. The quick needs to grab a dog-skull and place it on their goalpost, and the other team tries to stop them. Everyone apart from the Quick has weapons, and it’s extraordinarily brutal, with death commonplace and lots of scars guaranteed. The travelling teams survive on tributes from their opponents (provided they win) and after every match is a big party where you’re provided with a seemingly willing harem of people of the gender of your choice, plus food, drink and music.
This game was invented wholesale by writer / director David Peoples, and it’s proved popular enough to cross over to the real world, with several leagues in Europe and the US (presumably with less death and disfigurement). Peoples is one of the cleverest of Hollywood’s scriptwriters, having written “Blade Runner”, “Unforgiven” and “Twelve Monkeys”, and this, while not quite up there with those classics, certainly deserves a great deal more attention than it’s had.
Wannabe Quick Kidda (Joan Chen) is looking for more than her small-town life, so when Sallow’s Quick is severely injured after playing in her town, she follows them and eventually works her way onto the team. She learns the game and the team improves, all the while heading north, towards the Red City and a potential challenge match against their League team, strong and fast professionals, where it’s either death or glory – Sallow, a former League player, got their attention as a young man by lasting 26 “stones” (game times are marked by throwing stones at a gong, 3 segments lasting 100 hundred stones each, one stone every five seconds or so).
There’s a lot of film in this film. At a point in the action where your average low-budget sci-fi film would have been ready for the crescendo, “Salute of the Jugger” is barely halfway over. Kidda blossoms and the film develops two stories – her attempt to make it to the League, and Sallow’s attempt at redemption after years in the wilderness. Alongside all this is some frankly masterful world-building, where every single thing feels like it was thought out. The dormitory that Kidda and Sallow stay in in the city; the literal divide between rich and poor (with segments feeling like a spiritual predecessor to “The Hunger Games”); the way the dog-towns operate; and very importantly, the film’s view of gender.
Gender is almost entirely irrelevant. Sallow’s team, as well as having Kidda, has another woman member, and they fight in exactly the same way and are treated as equal members. Sex for the victorious team is provided equally to both genders, and aside from a slightly under-developed plot about the reason for Sallow being kicked out of the Red City being something to do with an upper-class woman he had a relationship with, there seems to be complete equality. No point is made of this, although it’s certainly deliberate, so if you’re watching you’ll just be enjoying the plot and the matches, until you stop and think about it for a second and realise that there’s no sexist language, no misogyny, and women aren’t threatened out in this wilderness. Class is the only divide in this world.
On top of a really smart script and a sexism-free world, there’s the games themselves. Boy, are they exciting! It feels like a real sport, and the final match as Sallow’s team goes further than any challenger ever has before, bringing spectators from all over the city to cheer them on, is the equal of any great sport film you could name.
This is a really good film, one that absolutely nails the ending, a minor classic of the era of video shops (early 80s to early 00s) and it’s tied together with a fantastic performance from Rutger Hauer. His ability to elevate material with his sheer presence has made lots of films enjoyable that shouldn’t have been, and his presence in great films has made them classics. If you think about it, he can match top 5 best films with just about anyone – “Blade Runner”, “The Hitcher”, “Fatherland”, this and about 20 tied for that fifth spot. He’s fantastic, and he’s helped by great turns from Chen, Lindo and D’Onofrio. How is this film not more popular?
So, jump on a cheap VHS copy of this film the next time you see it, while we’re still in its 25th anniversary year, and have yourself a heck of a time. A real gem.
Rating: thumbs up