Cast: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, George Henare, Rena Owen
Director: Toa Fraser
Rating: R16 (graphic violence)
Running time: 107 mins
Verdict: Mean as
The Dead Lands might start in a graveyard, and it sure creates quite a body count along the way. But among all that death it also feels more like the birth of something.
Yes it's a film entirely in te reo, something that hasn't been done on the local big screen since The Maori Merchant of Venice and before that, hardly ever.
But it's also a Maori martial arts movie, a showcase for the taiaha and patu fighting skills of mau rakau.
Judged as movie about pre-European inter-tribal conflict, it's a happily faux history lesson of unspecific geography and period (even though some of its English subtitles do suggest early Blackadder). But no one went to kung fu movies for insights into the workings of the Ming Dynasty.
What Dead Lands does is deliver a sort of mythical world of great style and abundant energy. It does a great kapa haka performance when it needs to, though at times it can feel like the narrative is straining to set up another inventive fight sequence and one stand-off involving the barricades of a remote pa doesn't quite work - the numbers on both sides of the fence don't make for a convincing siege.
Also an encounter with a warrior woman, Mehe (Raukura Turei), mid-quest does feel like it's meeting a need to get one strong gal involved in this otherwise testosterone-laden adventure. The story is the quest of young Hongi (Rolleston, solid again), who on mission to avenge the slaughter of his family and tribe seeks the help of The Warrior (Makoare), hermit ruler of the titular barren territory, to help him take on aspiring chief Wirepa (Tuhaka) and his gang of mohawked murderers.
No, it doesn't look a fair fight. Wirepa's boys have spent quite a bit of time down the gym, after all.
And when we first meet the Warrior he's questioning his own motivation as the biggest badass in this neck of the woods and wonders whether he should just add Hongi to the menu and his shrunken head collection rather than take the fight to the mob who has invaded his land.
Makoare is the movie's MVP, making great work of his menacing presence in the intimate scenes as well as the physical stuff - scenes where he demonstrates there were several better ways to die than from a poke in the eye with a blunt stick.
Like Asian martial arts films, The Dead Lands is built to be enjoyed on a purely visceral level. Helped by vivid cinematography and a pulsatingly electronic soundtrack, director Toa Fraser delivers a fight flick which knows it has to engage on a character level too.
Yes, it's in te reo but The Dead Lands never feels like it's trying too hard to say anything important.
All the same, it may well become a very important film.