World peace, even on a small scale, will never be achievable because there’s always some bastard craving the taste of blood. That’s the dilemma faced by Tane (George Henare) and his tribe who are hoping to make peace with their neighbors, but when that opposing chief’s son, Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), arrives with a squad of warriors in tow it’s clear that war is coming. Quite soon in fact as Wirepa and his men kill Tane and his people leaving only the women and the chief’s son alive.
Young Hongi (James Rolleston) is no warrior – we know because we’re told this repeatedly – but as the last man standing from his tribe he sets out after Wirepa with revenge on his mind. He follows his prey into the Dead Lands, a dense section of the forest forbidden to trespassers and home to tales of a monster who eats human flesh, but he soon discovers that his best chance at survival may be an alliance with that very monster (Lawrence Makoare).
The Dead Lands finds distinction in its characters and locations – Maori tribes in centuries old New Zealand – and these two factors combine to deliver some unique visuals alongside the action, but unfortunately it’s a wholly generic affair in almost every other regard.
Comparisons to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto are superficially apt at least – they’re different cultures and there’s no love interest to complicate matters – as both immerse viewers into a foreign forest among people who speak in subtitles, engage in mystical customs and fight fierce battles to avoid extinction. The problems though can be found in the differences.
Director Toa Fraser gives his film a big feel at times as characters run and fight their way across vast swaths of the landscape, and the numerous fight sequences act as bloody punctuation marks throughout the tale. They’re frequent, but the fights aren’t all that impressive. There’s a lot of sizzle to be sure including the pre-fight Haka displays as the warriors demonstrate traditional expressions, dance-like moves and the art of sticking out their tongues towards their enemies. Once the actual fighting starts though the clashes are presented in the all too common jumble of fast cuts and slow-motion meaning little to none of it is exciting or impressive.
The bigger issue though is a script (by Glenn Standring) that fumbles a very basic revenge setup. Hongi is introduced as a young man incapable of fighting, and when he meets up with the cannibalistic warrior in the Dead Lands the film shifts into a mentor/apprentice mode. We expect training of some sort, presumably in the form of a montage, but instead the fearsome warrior has only two lessons to share – run fast and talk smack about your enemy’s mother right before the fight. That’s it. And yet suddenly the boy is fighting and kicking a fair amount of ass.
There’s also an attempt to inject the story with a more magical side as Hongi has visions of his dead grandmother in a star-filled hut, but the interactions are weightless and leave us feeling unmoved. More successful are the struggles faced by the unnamed “monster.” His back story is eminently more engaging and interesting than Hongi’s, and while we’re given a taste of what brought him to the Dead Lands more would have been appreciated. One other character of note weaves her way into the tale, but Mehe’s (Raukura Turei) time here is far too limited. She’s introduced as a highly capable woman – a rarity in this male-dominated story – but as quickly as she appears she’s gone again. Like the monster, her narrative also promised to be more engaging than Hongi’s.
For all that the film gets wrong with poor Hongi, Rolleston delivers a fine and physical performance in support of his bland character. Just as he is in the narrative though, he’s outshone by Makoare at every turn. He’s a combination of Mister Miyagi and the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk as he shifts between teaching the boy and threatening to eat him, and his movements are violent, fierce and fast for a man his size. His scarred, tattooed and fur-clad body offers a worthwhile pairing to a constantly expressive (and eyebrow-less) face.
The Dead Lands is a visually appealing action picture made watchable by its imagery and unique culture, but it misses the mark beyond that.
The Upside: Beautiful geography; some fun action bits; “I will fill your daughter’s uterus with dirt” is a fantastic threat; shows cultural and historical respect for the Haka
The Downside: Too much of the action is poorly shot/edited; dull script