Fantasia Movie Review: The Dead Lands (2014)

(Source: General Film Corporation)

(Source: General Film Corporation)

Light spoilers to set up the plot. I don’t give away the ending.

Fantasia Presents has brought us The Dead Lands (2014), New Zealand’s entry for the 87th Academy Awards. Director Toa Fraser gives us an action film at its core, all elements present but the glitz and the glamour has been stripped away. It can be brutal, it can be violent and there’s not a gun in sight.

The plot is a hero’s journey. A young boy, Hongis (James Rolleston), is after the members of a rival tribe for killing his father, the Chieftain, as well as almost wiping his tribe clean. The differences are obvious. Hongis reveres his father and respects his Maori ancestors. Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), leader of the antagonists, starts his path to war without his father and disrespecting the bones of his own ancestry.

Hongis is inexperienced but idealistic. He has visions of his Grandmother who claims he avenge his father. When Wirepa and his men cut a path across the Dead Lands, Hongis decides to seek help from an unlikely ally.

Enter the Warrior (Lawrence Makoare), a monster and a demon that haunts the Dead Lands and eats intruders. The Warrior is the quintessential veteran fighter, who has lost its honor and now lashes out at the world. An unparalled melee fighter, he will reluctantly meet the young boy but gladly enter the fray.

One of the elements of an action film you will see here immediately is posturing. The whole body presenting hostility, eyes wide open and tongue spread wide. If you think it’s not present in contemporary scenario, remember those entrances that the heroes and anti-heroes of our day do in flashy cars, bright suits and music blaring. Same thing here, just deconstructed to the bare, tribal and raw essentials.

The music is very much what sets the tone here. The tone is urgent, with heart palpitations and tribal drum beats. There are no explosions, but there’s brutality in every hit and blood flows freely.

Your mileage may vary here. The plot is a classic and well-weathered one but it’s interesting to see the action film laid bare. Then again, you could not be up for the experiment if your interest was to see a contemporary action movie.

Recommended if you’re willing to rediscover the roots of the action movie. I was entertained. It was an engaging movie, with characters that are broken and compromised. There’s no safety net for anybody. The police are not barging in, there’s no escape chopper and forget about calling in the cavalry. The ending might feel a bit bare and it lacks that satisfying blast after all the bloodshed but it’s fitting.

Watch on YouTube

Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival is scheduled from July 16 to August 4, 2o15.

Highs:

  • Props go to Lawrence Makoare for his portrayal of the Warrior. He is a fitting whirlwind of fury, a face strong enough to break through your screen. Whether he’s giving you the emotional conflicted killer or the violent demon to take on an army, he’s the most dangerous and interesting character on the screen.
  • Te Kohe Tuhaka’s Wirepa is the villain personified, out for blood and glory. Although he and his men wear the same getup, he’s instantly recognizable as the man in charge.
  • The music enhances the movie’s suspense really well. It made me feel the same as if I was watching a martial arts film, a western or a war movie.

Lows:

  • James Rolleston’s Hongis characterization doesn’t have the same raw power than Wirepa or The Warrior. I guess that’s par for the course since he’s the inexperience novice, the Jedi apprentice of this journey. He still seems very fragile for his surroundings.
  • It’s really violent which might disturb some viewers. On the other hand, there are no car chases, gun battles or explosions, so mainstream action movie lovers might not be as thrilled. Not the movie really needs any of those, but if you can’t live without them then you might want to look elsewhere.

That will do for now.

Coming soon:

(Source: The Dead Lands Official Site)

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