Conventional wisdom would have you think a pre-colonial Māori action movie in Te Reo would be a suicidal commercial proposition. Then again, conventional wisdom is responsible for so much dreck littering bargain bins and has never produced the patu-wielding, arse-kicking, uniquely Aotearoan action of The Dead Lands. For many Kiwis, the period setting and Māori language elements should prove a unique enough reason to stump up for a movie ticket. For others, The Dead Lands offers proof that a well-crafted, fight-filled revenge story is the type of pic least reliant on the English language to impress, which this does in spades.
The film follows Hongi (James Rolleston) as he tracks and dispatches the men that slaughtered his tribe, led by the suitably duplicitous, slimy and egotistical villain Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka). This simple premise takes us across our local landscape in a way that reclaims it from glossy TV commercials and fantasy films, defying the title to bring the past to the big screen as a living, breathing entity and then, frequently, dousing it with blood after many a chilling stand-off.
Toa Fraser’s prior films (No. 2, Dean Spanley, Giselle) may not have pointed to him being director of choice for this project, but he brings plenty to The Dead Lands that makes it hard to think of the film ending up as impressive in anyone else’s hands. For every decision Fraser makes to ensure this works as an action pic (itself no mean feat, especially in a country that has so little experience making ‘em) there are creative calls that imbue The Dead Lands with something extra. While the athleticism and choreography impress, some of the fight scenes hew too closely to overly-familiar kinetic camerawork and choppy editing for my taste, but this is a minor gripe for a film that does so much else right.
‘The Dead Lands’ movie times