The Dead Lands is a solid action movie of the straightforward type we don’t often see anymore, a rather simple revenge plotline enlivened by a sense of place and culture lacking in your standard action fare. The plot follows Hongi (James Rolleston), the youngest son of a Maori chieftain, who witnesses Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), son of a rival chieftain, attempt to upset an uneasy peace by violating the graves of his own ancestors, for which act he proceeds to blame Hongi, serving as justification enough to go to war. Hongi’s father prepares, but is nonetheless caught unaware that very night, in an act of butchery that kills every male but Hongi, who is lucky enough to barely escape during the attack. Wirepa, fresh from the victory in which he has claimed Hongi’s father’s head, makes his way back home and to other glories, while Hongi, now the chief of his tribe, sets after him to take his revenge. Nearby, a mysterious Warrior (Lawrence Makoare), said to be an evil spirit, rules over a people-less land and kills any who trespass. Wirepa decides to claim further glory for himself by passing through the Warrior’s land in direct defiance of his mystique. Hongi makes alliance with the Warrior against this effrontery, and both set to winnowing Wirepa’s band, one man at a time.
All this is fairly standard fare, reminiscent of Conan or even modern day action revenge movies. What makes The Dead Lands stand out is its cultural specificity, an action epic set in ancient pre-colonized New Zealand, with no European in sight, and all the action sequences based on a Maori martial art called mau rakau.
As such, the action should be stellar, and it generally is. It’s very brutal and carries a visceral effectiveness that owes as much to the martial art as to the filmmaking, each emphasizing the hits with a telling spray of blood, a body hitting dirt. The cool efficiency of Makoare as the Warrior is particularly stunning to watch, and the range of Maori weapons brought to the fore lend variety to the action. Because the violence is so brutal, the hits make much more of an impact, an appreciated change from the “I got shot in the shoulder but I’m good” regularity of typical action movies. In The Dead Lands, characters struggle not to get hit, because when they do it carries serious consequences (hint: death). As the number of fighters reduces to a core group of supremely skilled warriors, more hits are delivered, but by this point the brutality is clear and the tension rises appreciably just by the visceral nature of the combat portrayed, and still each hit carries serious consequences in terms of maiming or debilitating an opponent. Far be it from me to raise the false call for realism, as that is definitely not what we’re getting here, but a little practical earthiness goes a long way.
The fights are choreographed very well, and the editing largely serves to show that off and supplement it appreciably. There were a few moments where I lost what was happening, by now an almost cliché action movie complaint, though the tell-tale hit was never buried. Occasionally, editor Dan Kircher and cinematographer Leon Narbey seemed to be working to contradict each other, mostly in that the editing seemed badly placed in shots that moved too much to really see what was happening, but this was largely, appreciatively, avoided. Where each excelled was in lending a particular and interesting character to each individual fight, in which task they were helped by a solid, if fairly on the nose, script from Glenn Standring, in which every fight was placed in a radically different environment. As should be the case, the natural beauty and variety of New Zealand was put to work, framing fights in dense bush, riverbeds, or in the open on a hilltop, and allowing the choreographers and the characters to utilize their environment in interesting and effective ways. In particular, Narbey carries this a step forward by lending each fight its own compositional structure and palette, the riverbed fight filmed entirely in deep twilight blue with occasional cuts of red to emphasize the violence of perhaps the darkest sequence in the film, the monumental and opaque nature of the characters. Kircher also edits each differently, though it feels like his palette is a little more limited by the general propulsive quality of the film, a challenge which he mostly bests.
As Hongi, Rolleston leaves something to be desired, though the character as rendered isn’t giving him much more to work with than typical action arcs. Contrastingly, as Wirepa, Tuhaka plays a character almost childish in his single-minded pursuit of glory, but, especially with his wide smirk, lends a nearly animal charisma that simply overcomes script limitations and impresses you with his bearing and skill. Similarly, Makoare’s turn as the Warrior is a physical performance, suited perfectly to the film, in which his towering, scarred body carries more character than nearly all his lines combined. Rolleston is mostly serviceable, but Tuhaka and Makoare carry the film.
One of my favorite elements in The Dead Lands was its use and acceptance of Maori culture and traditions, especially spiritual ones. Though laden with cynicism about notions of honor and glory, the film accepts as given, and key to its plot development and sense of environment, the spiritual worldview of the Maori, with its emphasis on communion with the dead for guidance, cannibalism as a means of warfare, and the reality of curses and their power over the living. In fact, the film seems to more glory in than just accept these aspects, numerous scenes devoted to reading curses and fears over tainted items and desecrations. In particular, the Warrior is nearly built around the notion of cannibalism, a practice he engages in habitually, and, in one particularly graphic sequence, Wirepa slits the throat of a contentious underling to slake the thirst of his other soldiers. Additionally, Hongi’s communion with his grandmother is a regular and key plot mechanism, a method of revealing his inner thoughts as well as laying out both the epic scope and the particular Maori wordview. If anything, given its emphasis on brutality, violence and death, it might be more appropriate to consider The Dead Lands a kind of action adventure Maori-gothic, a mix mash of genres that is perhaps its greatest strength.
A unique and undeniably fun film, The Dead Lands, for all its overreliance on cliché and tendency to be on the nose, is a quite solid, recommendable actioner. Well filmed, edited, and shot, it looks impressive, makes the most of a country you’d think would be tapped out after the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and serves as an excellent showcase for an ancient and incredible martial art. This is a side of New Zealand we haven’t seen before, and well worth a look.