The Dead Lands
I will fully admit that, when it comes to the cinema of New Zealand, I’m far more likely to talk competently on all things Middle-Earth than anything else, such is my ignorance of the more home-grown variety of film coming out of the two islands. But there is a bit of an industry there, as the followings place in JDIFF makes clear. The plot description enticed me, with a bit of an Apocalypto feel to it, and that was all it took to get me to buy a ticket. But is The Dead Lands a good example of New Zealand and Maori cinema, or just another forgettable niche experience? I caught a screening of The Dead Lands at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
After his tribe is almost entirely wiped out by a marauding band of warriors, young Hongi (James Rolleston) embarks on a journey to a forbidden land, seeking the assistance of a legendary Warrior (Lawrence Makoare) in his quest for revenge.
The Dead Lands is an action movie. To be precise, The Dead Lands is an action revenge movie, the latest example in a long line of action revenge movies. And wow is it packed with action. The opening scene see’s Makoare’s “Warrior” brutally hunt down some trespasser on his land, slit his throat and exult in the very act of bloodletting. And every 20 or so minutes, like clockwork, we are presented a similar scene, with varying amount of players, where the throat slitting and bludgeoning begins anew.
And it’s just so dull after a while. You can blame the budget and the set limitations I suppose, the bigger Hollywood examples of this genre generally have enough money to mix things up to a greater degree. Here, director Toa Frazer can only go back to the same well over and over again, for more dance fighting and flailing tongues. The fight scenes just sort of meld into each other after the first few, and as something that The Dead Lands wants to put front and centre to define itself, I don’t think that it works very well at all.
I say that because the plot of The Dead Lands is as old as the hills. A young boy witnessed the murder of his family, and must face into manhood with the mission to avenge them, learning how to fight and taking down his enemies one at a time, with a wise old sensei to show him the way. The Dead Lands is treading water with such a plotline, and starts drowning when the fight scenes don’t have a sustainable impact. OK, it’s a very nice village and the time is taken to make us appreciate that fact, and the fact that Hongi is very close to his rapidly deceased father. But that isn’t going to cut it. It’s fair to say that The Dead Lands is relying a lot on its rather unique setting in order to paper over those cracks, but as good and as fascinating as that setting is, it can only do so much. Young Hongi’s story just isn’t all that enthralling or unique, and his efforts at seeking his own form of justice don’t pay the bills either.
But who cares about him, you know his entire story arc 15 minutes into the film. If The Dead Lands has a unique selling point that it is banking on, it’s “Warrior”. Makoare has the perfect presence and voice to inhabit the character, this tough, bulging psychopath with a dark past, and The Dead Lands’s best moments are easily the ones where he is dominating proceedings, especially in the first half of the film. Hongi is such a blank canvass that his mission doesn’t even make that big of an impact on us, but Warrior was someone that I wanted to know a bit better, so savage and barbarous as he seemed, and yet with that obvious depth of knowledge and intelligence behind that iron hard face. And yet, this character too can only go so far. The deeper revelations about him basically ruin any mystique that he might have been able to garner, and by the end he’s fallen firmly into the archetype position that he should have been avoiding. A killer Mr Miyagi to be sure, but Mr Miyagi none the less, and there is nothing that intriguing about the mentor/student relationship that Frazer tries to sell to you.
I suppose maybe it is that setting that is making me be so harsh. Pre-colonial New Zealand, a land wrapped in mysticism as dense as its foliage, full of ancestor worship and visitations with the dead, a true lost world where the idea of the “noble savage” can live side by side with the monsters of the titular taboo territory. It’s a setting ripe for fantastical and evocative story-telling, but the opportunity isn’t taken. Instead, it’s just Death Wish or Taken or any number of similar films, just with Maoris in loincloths instead of old white men in leather jackets. Is it homage, is it satire, do I care? Not really. There’s a better tale to be made of these ingredients, one where Warrior remains a horrifying enigma, perhaps the kind that tracks down and defeats the rampaging band of villain Wirepa one by one.
Wirepa might be the films only real saving grace. The handsome glory obsessed antagonist is one of the films only interesting characters, and only then because of his delusions of grandeur make him so easy to despise. There’ something wrong when you find the main villain so much more interesting than any of the good guys, student or mentor, but that’s how I felt watching The Dead Lands.
The film has some serious pacing/length issues, with the screen groaning under the two hour running time, which is so easily unnecessary. An interlude just before the final act, featuring a female warrior that Hongi and his more bloodthirsty older friend bump into, was as painfully drawn out as it was painfully immaterial and weird, just an excuse to put the hero onscreen with an attractive girl, with predictably dire consequences once Warrior gets involved. The whole thing was a serious drag on The Dead Lands’s tempo, and I may have been far more entertaining of the films flaws if it had come in at a more manageable 90 or so minutes. Even without that whole sequence, The Dead Lands can’t keep the viewers interest from flagging at times, even as Frazer tries to fill the gaps between drab fight sequences with drab trip sequences, where the dead commune with the living and exhort them to perform murder on their behalf. I suppose I’m not so far gone on the Hamlet metaphor that I can get right behind this: one feels that Hongi is just sort of going after the guy who murdered his family because he’s sort of obliged to, rather than out of any serious need for emotional fulfilment through the act of vengeance.
I suppose that it would have been easy for The Dead Lands to be a ridiculous action movie full of racist clichés, but it does manage to keep a serious air about itself, with precious little humour and a commitment to the culture that is attempting to portray in the genre of story it wraps itself around. I can appreciate that, but whereas something like Apocalypto was able to better balance the culture, the action and the pacing to form something really credible, The Dead Lands is just sort of stuttering all over the place. There are fewer greater sins in cinema than predictability, and The Dead Lands is a macho-obsessed, trope repeating exercise in being predictable.
The cast is doing OK, and little more. Makoare is obviously a stand out, and it’s neat to see him get to show off that imposing physicality and sense of menace without layers of prosthetics or elaborate costumes. There are times when he gets to show a slightly softer side too, or maybe “wounded” would be a better word to use, when he elaborates on his past and how he sees himself as having a doomed existence. That being said, once you get beyond the initial impression and those few moments of emotion, there isn’t all that much to the performance. But he’s head and shoulders above James Rolleston, who is playing to the archetype he has been assigned and little more, brining the expected degree of youthfulness, regret and teenage angst/anger to his quest to get some payback. If there was a cast member I was actually impressed by to a larger degree it was Te Kohe Tuhaka as the villainous Wirepa. While there is a certain craziness in how he keeps using the word “glory” over and over again, I had no problem buying into this reputation obsessed young warrior, so full of himself, without any real cause, that he is willing to break every rule just to see if he can get away with it. The rest, all playing character types with little imagination or depth to them, can only do so much.
The visual side of The Dead Lands has few tricks up its sleeves, once you get beyond the amazing scenery that the story takes place in. This is a primal, forgotten world, and I almost feel like I have to offer congratulations to Frazer for finding a portion of New Zealand that never turned up The Lord of the Rings. The jungle is a suffocating and dangerous place in The Dead Lands, where what bare glimpses of flatland and signs of civilisation exist are welcome breaks from the encroaching nature of all that is around them. But The Dead Lands can’t live on that forever, and the rest of the direction is fairly pedestrian, the camera never really doing anything to draw attention to itself.
The exception to that is the many fight scenes, with the use of the largely unknown martial art of “mau rakau” taking centre stage. The art is interesting in its use of razor sharp paddles as its primary weapons, but the way that the contests are shot negates this effect unfortunately. This up close shaky cam style of filming hand to hand combat is certainly in vogue at the minute, but there are times when the patience and common sense of a director can make it work – see the first fight between the two title characters in the Russo Brothers’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a good example – but here the camera is in way too tight, the cuts way too quick and the movements of the actors repetitive and boring after a very short time. It is only the Maori war dancing and facial movements that actually make them interesting after a point. The low point must easily be an extended two-on-many battle half way through, when Wirepa’s warband is continually being stripped of numbers, but never seems to actually get any smaller, as if the action was being presented out of sequence. With this failure, the Maori action movie is struggling to make the required impression.
And the script, from Glenn Standring, doesn’t really exist to make up the difference either. The Maori language sounds amazing, but I think that much is being lost in the translation to English subtitles. There’s something about the bad guy talking about putting dirt into the chief’s daughter’s “uterus” that just sucks me out of a scene. Characters have a tendency to wax poetical about ancestors and honour and blood-debts at the drop of a hat, and some of the only times the wordplay enticed me was when Warrior broke the trend, declaring his contempt for the code of honour that other characters live by, which had a nice pay-off right at the end. There’s not much to talk about musically either, the score being mostly synth tracks and reverberating beats thrown in where they are required.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-The ending is fairly predictable. Warrior is dead from the start, like any good mentor character, but of course he takes a good few of the bad guys with him, and I liked that his disgust for “honour” actually played into his final battle with Rangi (the rather good Xavier Horan).
-Hongi showing mercy to Wirepa was something I saw coming, after the film spent most of its time drawling a clear line between his world view and that of both Wirepa and Warrior, where allowing his target to live was one of the only ways to really defeat him. But after the bloodshed of the previous 90 minutes, the sudden appearance of calm hands and rational calculation felt like a bit of a gip. I wonder if anyone else knows about The Miami Connection, and its infamously stupid final message after a half-hour finale of blood-soaked carnage: “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.”
-That goes double for the final exchange between Hongi and Warrior. For a character who had spent so much of the film cursing his ancestral obligations and revelling in his current situation, I felt a little let down that he so willingly went along with Hongi’s promise to make him a hero in tales.
-Wirepa really never does shut up about glory, to the point where, spitting the word with a spear at his throat, I wondered if it had become self-parody. Or maybe, again, the translation is running into difficulties.
-The escapade with the female warrior and her little band that Hongi and Warrior run into was one of the worst momentum killers I’ve ever seen in a film, and all for very little purpose. I didn’t know her, didn’t care about her attraction to Warrior or Hongi’s attraction to her, and the way that she ended up fighting Warrior seemed more about doing a quick and slightly different fight scene than anything else. Her death lacked any real impact on me. Something that could have, and should have, been cut out.
-The stuff with the grandmother, the women who eat the prophecy mushrooms, and basically anything to do with the actual dead talking to the living, felt like a step way too far to me. Better to leave all of that implied – like Warrior’s discussion with his ancestors – then to come out and show it all as fully real and even tangible.
-The last shots show Hongi alone, looking out at the sea as he did before. I’m not sure what we are supposed to take away from that. Hongi is left without tribe or purpose, but because he has made good on his obligations to his deceased ancestors, we can envision a brighter future for him than that which Warrior enjoyed.
There are two films that I could compare The Dead Lands too. The first is Gareth Evans’ The Raid, in that both of them are martial arts stories far too concerned with style over substance, with repetitive fight sequences and lacklustre everything else. The Raid has always been over-rated for me because of that, and watching The Dead Lands felt like much the same, only the drab surroundings of a tower block were replaced by the greenery of a forest.
The other comparison is obviously Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, and the contrast is more negative there. Apocalypto has its flaws, but I got far more invested in the journey of Jaguar Paw, who had a proper tangible goal to aim for, than I ever did for Hongi. Apocalypto also succeeds because it has a grand point to make about how the corruption of a civilisation frequently presaging a very terrible fall. Even if that point wasn’t too many people’s tastes, at least the point was made. The Dead Lands can only go as far as a poorly elaborated upon idea that we owe something to our ancestors, and that while we can accomplish that through copious amounts of blood-letting, maybe right at the end we can do it through a slapdash forgiveness.
It’s plain to see that I didn’t enjoy The Dead Lands, with its overdone plot, mostly boring characters, some very odd sequences and action – supposedly the main draw – that got old very fast. A few redeeming elements, most notably Makoare’s performance and character, stop it from falling into the realm of worst film of the year territory, but it really isn’t all that far off. If The Dead Lands has a primary sin, it’s that the great potential of the setting and culture portrayed was not realised, when it coud have been if the director had been just a bit more ambitious and willing to take a few risks. At least New Zealand cinema still has Middle-Earth. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of XYZ Films).