As far as its stars are concerned, The Legend Of Baron To'a is much more than just another movie. It's a beginning. A film that acknowledges what came before while also lighting a path for others to follow. It's about heritage and culture wrapped in a kick-ass package. One day, they hope, it too could become a legend.
It's an overcast morning in Otahuhu when I meet actors Uli Latukefu and John Tui at the Fale Dojo. The concrete brick walls are painted black and the floor is covered in black mats. There are punching bags, heavy-looking weights and one wall lined with rows of boxing gloves ($5 to hire per session). This is not a gym for poseurs. This is a gym that means business. Then I hear something that sounds out of place. I hear laughter.
Walking inside I see the pair fooling around in the gym's full-sized wrestling ring, reliving favourite moments from wrestling's more flamboyant era while TimeOut's photographer attempts to get our cover shot.
Climbing out of the ring Latukefu says, "I remember watching WWF when I was a kid. It was so much fun. There was so much spectacle in the 80s, early 90s. It was awesome. And in the WWF there were Polynesians. It showed another avenue out, something greater and something bigger."
Tui, the more boisterous of the two, jumps down saying, "Wrestling in Tongan culture is part of the argy-bargy. We're physical. We're born for physical stuff."
We head outside and even though they're both big fellas, they manage to squeeze themselves on to one side of a faded wooden park bench while I set up on the other.
"I'm pumped for this movie!" Tui exclaims when I ask how they're feeling as release day nears. "This is fresh. It breaks the mould in terms of how we look at Polynesian humour and action. It's something the public has never seen before. That's a fact."
An action-comedy, Baron To'a tells the story of Fritz, played by Latukefu, a young entrepreneur who returns from Australia to sell the family home in South Auckland. He quickly runs afoul of a gang who have fortified a house in the small cul-de-sac after they steal the Championship Wrestling belt of his dead father, the legendary Baron To'a, who is played by Tui in flashback sequences. The film focuses on Fritz's varied attempts to reclaim the belt.
So, that's what happens. And that's what we'd usually talk about in an interview. But instead, Latukefu and Tui want to talk about bigger things. They want to talk about what the film's about.
"Being from the South Pacific, being Tongan, in order for us to go forth these are the types of movies that are important for us, it speaks volumes for legacies," Tui says. "We're children of immigrants who came here. I represent that and I hope to represent it well. We're the first wave of having to adapt to two cultures; living in Westernised culture and holding our heritage at home, which is close to a lot of us."
He pauses and says, "There's a lot of profiles and stereotypes out there for our people. This is definitely going to break the rafters. In this movie, I tried to give integrity to my parents who came over here from Tonga to get a better life. This movie is close to my heart. I love it."
"It's about the struggle to manage your cultural heritage and identity and the expectations of what that brings; innately through parents or expectations you put on yourself," Latukefu says.
"Legacy is not just a Tongan thing. It's of all cultures," Tui continues. "The expectation of being children of immigrants is always massive. The story in Baron To'a is not just the expectation of the son when he comes back to this community but also the shadow that his father casts. Because he's not just a normal dad, he wasn't a meat worker or a labourer, he was the number one wrestler in the country. Fritz represents a lot of Kiwis and Australians that come from the islands or an indigenous background where the mantle to succeed is massive."
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Befitting their on-screen relationship the pair have an easy chemistry together. They've been mates for about five years after meeting by chance.
"Our families are from the same village," Latukefu laughs. "When we met I said, 'Who's this guy? I have to chop him down.'"
They both crack up and then he says, "But John has such a resumé and working with a fellow Tongan actor in this particular story was brilliant. One of the reasons I signed on to do the movie was the opportunity to work with fellow Polynesian actors. It's very rare."
"I loved working with a fellow Tongan actor from across the ditch," Tui says. "This is not just a Kiwi movie, it's very Australian as well. It relates to a lot of people."
"It's definitely a global conversation. It just happens to be told through a Pacific Island lens," Latukefu agrees. "I hope a lot of people will not only enjoy the movie but be surprised."
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is the feel of its many action sequences. There's high-octane chase sequences, bone-breaking fight scenes and not one but two Royal Rumble type pile-ons. They've aimed for flashy Marvel blockbuster set pieces even though, as Latukefu says, "one of their actor's pay is probably all our budget".
"It's shot in a Hollywood-action style," Tui enthuses," but it has that domestic Kiwiana feel. That's what I mean when I say Baron To'a is the first."
When Tui says this you have to listen. His most recent film roles include such action-packed spectacles as Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, where he acted opposite Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and Solo: A Star Wars Story.
"This is a story of the heart," he continues. "but with kick-ass action. The action in this is off the hook."
Then he looks across at his co-star and says, "I see Uli really standing out as an action star."
They both suffered for the film. Tui says he tore his medial collateral ligament, a band of tissue inside the knee, wrestling on the third day of rehearsals. "I got over-confident," he says sheepishly.
Thanks to his starring role on Netflix's Marco Polo, Latukefu is no stranger to stunt work, although, he says, not to this extent. He pulled a hamstring during a fast-paced action chase and had the bejesus knocked out of him after a scene with a professional kickboxer.
"We were getting it, but the scene wasn't there. I said to her, 'You really need to go for it, we don't have much time. We're running out of daylight.'"
Those sound like famous last words, I say.
"Exactly," he winces. "She was very quick and came at me. I didn't move my arm in time and she sidekicked me right in the ribs. I went, 'Yeah, that's great, really good, we got it.' She's a kickboxer. I walked away with stars."
"Uli was doing work that not many Marvel actors would do," Tui says. "Real talk. It's physical. But we're tough man. We don't complain. We get amongst it."
"Oh, I complained," Latukefu laughs. "Just to my wife."
• The Legend of Baron To'a is out tomorrow.