As anyone who ever watched the New Zealand rugby team, All Blacks do their synchronized stomping routine will find the ritualistic “theatre” of the Maori warriors in The Dead Lands familiar. Directed by Toa Fraser (it is his fourth feature length film) and written by Glenn Standring this New Zealand film is full of action, mysticism and bloodshed. While not overly gory, the film features enough of the claret to satisfy most action film aficionados.
Starring James Rolleston as Hongi and Lawrence Makoare as The Warrior, the film is a tale heavily laden with thoughts of life, death, family tradition (in the form of one’s ancestors) and honor. Perhaps the biggest let down in this variation of a coming of age/revenge film is the long philosophical slant.
There are so many dialogue heavy moments where the protagonists speak with their dead ancestors that the film becomes too wordy in all the wrong places. In some instances, like the overly chatty interchanges and monologues of the leads and their enemies, it seems that Fraser could have been influenced by the old Japanese samurai films. (Seven Samurai, which is the ultimate samurai film is so dialogue heavy that the fighting and action take second place to all the verbal rumination. While this does not take away from the film overall, the point is that all Japanese films of that era are “talky.”)
The film follows the story of Hongi, whose Chieftain father is murdered after an old ally’s son first tries to trick Hongi’s tribe into a war and then comes in the night with warriors and slaughters the tribe as they sleep. The only male survivor is Hongi and between the few women who accuse him of cowardice and his dead grandmother the Chief’s son goes to avenge his tribe’s death.
The murdering faction go through haunted lands and Hongi appeals to The Warrior who protects and guards the area. Known as a monster, the man is also the only survivor of his people. The two team up to chase down the treacherous and egocentric Wirepa, played by Te Kohe Tuhaka, and his warriors.
Along the way Hongi learns what is means to be a man and a warrior (he is but “16 seasons” in the film) and The Warrior earns a sort of redemption. The “monster” has a truly tragic backstory and it is revealed that his own actions, required by his father as a point of honor, drove the man mad.
The scenery is, of course, beautiful as the film is filmed in New Zealand. (Sidenote: In one scene, at what should be a splendidly mystic and touching moment, as the character straightens up one can clearly see what appears to be a car, or other motorized vehicle, zooming behind the actor on a road. This is just a split second but enough to spoil the intent of the scene.)
There are many battles between the protagonists and Wirepa’s men, which all have the participants gesturing wildly and includes much eye rolling and sticking out of tongues, which are meant to be either taunting or threatening or a combination of both. If one looks at pictures of the Maori God of War; eyes large, tongue sticking out, it seems this is the appropriate posturing to assume before attacking one’s enemy.
The fights themselves are impressively brutal, bloody and prolonged. Choreography has been done with particular attention to reality versus theatricality. The blows landed by the antiquated weapons look deadly, painful and debilitating. Were the fight scene’s longer and the monologues and philosophizing shorter the film would have flowed better and not felt so long.
Kudos to the stunt coordinators on the battle between Mehe (played by Raukura Turei) and The Warrior in the creek. This looks brilliant, further kudos to the cinematographer as the scene takes place in near dark. Great choreography and camera work make the scene feel right and real.
All in all, The Dead Lands is solid entertainment. The cinematography by Leon Narbey is nigh on perfect with his framing of scenes working brilliantly. Narbey also lights the set pieces very well, the “at night” scenes or ones set at dusk or in the afterlife are clear enough to make out almost every detail, something that many other cinematographer seem to mess up badly.
The actors all do a brilliant job, despite the dialogue heaviness of the script. Makoare’s pathos and inner agony are shakespearean in scope and Rolleston’s teen sole survivor is touchingly tragic and determined. Te Kohe Tuhaka impresses as the hubris filled Chief’s son whose treachery and bloodthirsty quest for honor leads him astray.
This Kiwi treat is a 4 out of 5 stars for story and those impressively choreographed fights. It loses a full star for the verbosity of its main actors. Streaming on US Netflix at the moment, this one is well worth a look for those who do not fear sub-titled films.