Director Toa Fraser’s “The Dead Lands” brings the stunning landscape of New Zealand and the exotic Maori tribal culture to the big screen in an engrossing coming-of-age adventure. Striking a balancing act between an understated character drama and a blood-soaked revenge tale, the film is a well-crafted introduction to Maori culture and its brutish way of war.
James Rolleston portrays the film’s central character, a young Maori tribesman named Hongi, thrown into a quest for vengeance against a rival tribe while getting a crash course in his own tribe’s way of combat. Lawrence Makoare assumes the role of a mysterious and mythologized Maori warrior who becomes a much-needed mentor for our young hero, while Te Kohe Tuhaka plays the vicious and power-hungry Wirepa, who becomes the object of Hongi’s quest for retribution. George Henere and Raukura Turei round out the cast in the roles of Hongi’s father Tane, and the powerful and zealous female Maori warrior, Mehe, who leaves a memorable impression on the viewer, and on Makoare’s seasoned veteran, respectively.
In ancient New Zealand, two Maori tribes that have maintained a lasting peace between one another are thrown into conflict when one tribesman named Wirepa encroaches on the holy ground sacred to both tribes, thus violating their long-standing pact. Hongi, the son of the rival tribe’s chief, Tane, witnesses Wirepa’s act of sacrilege, placing both tribes on the verge of all out war. Wirepa and his followers ultimately attack Hongi’s tribe, killing Tane and countless other members. Hongi embarks on his quest to avenge his fallen tribesman, but knowing that he is a novice to the battlefield, seeks out the most feared and respected warrior in all the land, who has chosen to lead a life of seclusion away from his former life. After some persuading by Hongi, the Warrior ultimately agrees to take him on as his apprentice to avenge the fallen tribesmen.
If sweeping aerial shots of the breathtaking landscape of New Zealand are a bonus that you crave in action-adventure films, Peter Jackson is no longer the only game in town. The scenery of “The Dead Lands” is as gorgeous as it is vast, enlivened by some truly amazing cinematography. This is one of those films that can be recommended purely on the basis of being a visual feast. Narratively, the film is reminiscent of the kind of sprawling historical adventure seen in the like of “Braveheart”, “Gladiator”, or “The Last of the Mohicans” – hardly a wonder, then, that it’s been well acclaimed at film festivals and in its native New Zealand.
While the film revels in the kind of period adventure drama that those films exemplify, the choice to make the protagonist an adolescent is perhaps its best distinguishing attribute. Many audience members outside of New Zealand and Australia will enter the film with little firsthand knowledge of Maori culture. In making the main protagonist a teenager, and pairing him with the most legendary Maori warrior of his time, the film truly places the viewer into its world. As our young hero learns the fundamentals of his culture’s combat arts, the audience is learning right alongside him -which is exactly what any great training montage should accomplish. In crafting itself into an historical epic, “The Dead Lands” also manages to embody a more tribalistic version of “The Karate Kid”.
As an introduction to Maori martial arts, the film pulls not a single punch, and will probably be more gruesome than anyone who has trouble with the sight of blood will be able to handle. The action is mostly based on classic weapons of Maori warfare, with a jade club known as the Mere and a spear-staff combo called the Taiha being the primary weapons of choice for heroes and villains alike.
The film isn’t a non-stop action fest, and there is perhaps a bit too much talking in parts, but the brutal nature of Maori martial arts is consistently palpable throughout. The first major action scene pits the Warrior and Hongi against a dozen of Weripa’s men, and you will be hard-pressed to find greater savagery in any action film this year. The very act of character sticking their tongues out at each other seems the stuff of child’s play until one sees it put to use as a tool of intimidation here, to say nothing of the fact that the losers of Maori battles become the lunch of the victors. One of the best scenes of the film is a brief but crucial bonding scene by a campfire, where the Warrior instructs Hongi in the use of the Mere as the two dine on the flesh of one of their vanquished foes.
The growth of Hongi both as a warrior and as a man forms the entire narrative arch of the film, his development in both arenas being something that occurs in battle for him, and this one scene perfectly embodies action being used as a vehicle of character development.
The finale brings our hero and his mentor face to face with the murderer of his tribe once more, and having seen him grow and adapt under the Warrior’s tutelage is what gives the final battle the impact that it needs. The film is careful to remember that Hongi is still a rookie to Maori warfare, and therefore doesn’t leave our hero’s mentor on the side line, but it is still ultimately Hongi’s fight -one that he must face. This is also easily the most violent section of the film, coming at the end of a story with no shortage of blood and guts, something that squeamish viewers may want to bear in mind. The resolution, it must be said, also turns the normal arc of revenge stories on its head, making Hongi’s path towards the end of his quest a merging of the physical, philosophical and the spiritual.
As an introduction to Maori culture and martial arts, “The Dead Lands” is a memorable outing. It does drag a bit in places, and the savagery of the tribal warfare in the film may be a little too visceral for blood-shy viewers, but action and martial arts enthusiasts, as well as anyone with an interest in ancient warrior cultures, should definitely give this one a look.
- Director James Cameron says this about it: “A powerful and primal coming of age story that’s an absolute adrenaline rush, The Dead Lands is far more than just a great action movie, it’s great cinema.”
- The film was selected as New Zealand’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category for the 87th Academy Awards, though it wasn’t ultimately nominated.
- Lawrence Makoare, who portrays the Warrior in the film, has also appeared in the first and third “Lord of the Rings” films and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”.
- All of the dialogue in the film is in Maori dialect.