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Toronto Film Review: ‘The Dead Lands’

Impressive scenery and action elevate a tale of pre-colonial Maori warfare that is nonetheless brutal to the brink of monotony.

James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, Raukura Turei, George Henare.

Violence may not be the answer, but it sure kills a lot of screen time — and personnel in “The Dead Lands.” This first action movie for helmer Toa Fraser after the gentler seriocomic likes of “Dean Spanley” and “Naming Number Two” certainly doesn’t lack vigor, even if its thundering brutality and ultra-macho atmosphere do eventually grow a bit monotonous. Pic boasts spectacular Kiwi scenery and the novelty of being smong warring pre-colonial Maori tribes to attract attention. More adventuresome fans of brutal hand-to-hand-combat might be thrilled, though the presence of Maori dialogue (subtitled) and mysticism may strand this well-crafted item between arthouse and mainstream territory in some markets. Home-format sales should be fairly hale.

Sixteen-year-old Hongi (James Rolleston, also in Toronto title “The Dark Horse”), not unkindly considered “no warrior” by tribal chieftain father Tane (George Henare), is observing an apparent peacekeeping mission between two clans when he observes something else: Trailing the other side’s representative, he sees Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) deliberately desecrate the remains of ancestors left here from prior warfare. Confronted before all, this other chief’s son accuses Hongi of the crime in a clear effort to justify renewed bloodshed. That very night, Tane’s people are almost entirely slaughtered by the self-styled “glorious” warrior Wirepa and his henchmen. Knocked unconscious into a ravine, Hongi is the sole male to survive; his honor depends upon wreaking vengeance.

Returning homeward in a gloating, fearless mood, Wirepa insists on saving time by crossing through the “Dead Lands” an area where an entire tribe disappeared not long ago, and which is said ever since to be haunted by spirits (especially one bloodthirsty “monster”). Hongi pursues, advised by visions of his late grandmother (Rena Owen). He decides to appeal to the monster him/itself for help, duly finding Lawrence Makoare as the otherwise nameless “Warrior” who lives with three witch wives in the forbidden forest, killing anyone who trespasses there. Not an actual spirit but rather a near-invincible fighter driven by a terrible secret related to that vanished clan, the imposing older man decides there might be some redemption yet for him in helping avenge this other instance of a tribe’s violent extinction.

The remainder of Glenn Standring’s screenplay is warfare on the run, as the Warrior and Hongi (who somewhat improbably picks up deadly skills overnight thanks to his new instructor) rapidly winnow the enemy ranks. After one confrontation with a very high body count, most of the latter camp decide they really are dealing with an immortal demon, which they flee in terror. Still, the proud and ruthless Wirepa remains skeptical, not to mention eager to finish Hongi off.

Apart from its prelude and a somewhat silly interlude involving Raukura Turei as a babe encountered in the woods, the tale is basically one long pursuit/attack sequence. While the primal you-killed-my-family-now-I-kill-you story smacks of old Westerns (and newer Liam Neeson movies), the pic rises somewhat above formula due in large part to its being acted out in this particular historic cultural context. Depictions of pre-colonialist Maori life are rare enough onscreen, let alone in this kind of muscular genre effort.

Adding considerable spice for some viewers will be “The Dead Lands'” status as purportedly the first film to feature “Mau rakau,” a traditional Maori martial-arts form where the principal weapon is a sort of paddle so sharp-edged it can crack a skull or slit a throat in a trice. The staging and editing of these athletic sequences are vivid, though by the end they’ve become a little too much of a good thing. The script’s parting anti-war message that true honor lies in respect and peace rather than on the battlefield rings a bit hollow after so much he-man ultra-violence.

This isn’t exactly a movie about acting, although the thesps do admirably maintain a convincing intensity even as they bug their eyes and stick their tongues out, demonstrating age-old Maori intimidation techniques. Tech and design elements are all aces, with lensing of the Auckland and Central North Island Region locations (by the helmer’s usual d.p., Leon Narbey) both gorgeous and action-focused.

Toronto Film Review: 'The Dead Lands'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 4, 2014. Running time: 108 MIN. (Original title: "Hautoa")

Production: (New Zealand-U.K.) A GFC/Fightertown presentation, in association with XYZ Films, the New Zealand Film Commission, New Zealand Film Prod. Fund Trust, Te Mangai Paho, Images and Sound, Lip Sync and Day Tripper Films, of a Matthew Metcalfe production. (International sales: XYZ Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Matthew Metcalfe, Glenn Standring. Executive producers, Peter Hampden, Nick Spicer. Co-producers, Norman Merry, Tainu Stephens.

Crew: Directed by Toa Fraser. Screenplay, Glenn Standring. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Leon Narbey; editor, Dan Kircher; music, Don McGlashan; production designer, Grant Major; art director, Jill Cormack; costume designer, Barbara Darragh; sound (Dolby 5.1 Surround), Adam Martin; sound designer, James Heyday; re-recording mixer, Sven Taits; supervising sound editor, Lee Herrick; stunt coordinator, Steve McQuillan; hair, makeup and prosthetics designer, Davina Lamont; Mau Rakau expert, Jamus Webster; assistant director, Hamish Gough; casting, Liz Mullane. (Maori dialogue)

With: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, Raukura Turei, George Henare.

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