Viewed in the context of its intense combat scenes, The Dead Lands is a more-than-serviceable actioner distinguished by its exotic backdrop, gorgeous cinematography and engrossing performances. Add to that the brooding philosophy and ancestral calls to honor, and the film emerges with a heft and humanity rare in the genre.
The Dead Lands has the excitement of a thriller, and a story with the pull of mythic rites of passage. It shows it’s possible to respect and even cheer the skill of the warrior while acknowledging the awful cycles of battle and wounds of pride that precipitate warfare.
The dry-to-lush landscape of New Zealand provides the setting for this tale of warring Maori tribes, in a time before contact with European civilization. When his people are wiped out by bloodthirsty rivals, the lone male survivor—a boy barely 16, named Hongi—commits himself to avenge their deaths. But as much as he has the will, he has neither the battle-tested skill nor the maturity to vanquish those he’s chasing. He’s certainly no match for Wirepa, the cunning rival tribesman who beheaded Hongi’s father, and the prime target of the teen’s revenge. The boy’s quest for retribution will take him through an area called the Dead Lands, so named because a tribe that once made the area home had vanished in an instant.
Throughout the film, Hongi communicates with his deceased grandmother in the afterlife, which looks like bioluminescent organisms moving across a twilight sky. One of those early visions leads him to enlist the help of the Dead Lands’ legendary Warrior, a beast of a man who destroys those who trespass into his domain. This Warrior, who has his own reasons for helping the boy—and a complicated relationship with battle—mentors Hongi as a fighter.
Toa Fraser’s film commits itself and its characters to dealing with the need to honor the dead and the sacrifice sometimes required of such honor. The Warrior, the vanished tribe and Hongi’s quest are all part of the same look at violence, nobility and obligation.
James Rolleston gives dimension to Hongi, conveying sorrow and self-doubt even as he is determined to avenge his father. Lawrence Makoare (The Hobbit, Die Another Day), who plays the Warrior, is a hulking man of heavy brow whose skill as a fighter is matched by his ability to tap into a range of emotions that belie his imposing presence. He too has a redemption story that is linked to his ancestors.
Together, the Warrior and Hongi are like mirror images of one another, each with a similar history and a similar set of obligations to their respective tribes. But there is enough difference in experience and outlook that their pairing is dramatically exciting and unpredictable, even when they’re not battling Wirepa and his men.
The Warrior rejects the idea of a noble death in battle, and sees humans as pawns for the amusement of the gods. For him, such battles have little to do with honor and everything to do with politics. The shrewdest politician here is Wirepa, who finds no honor in peace and so uses a planned desecration of his ancestor’s bones to force a battle and thus gain the eternal admiration of his tribe.
What ensues is a chase through the Dead Lands: Wirepa’s men reluctantly following his lead across the forbidden area, with the avenger and his mercenary close behind. When the groups meet, we get impressively choreographed battles between tribesmen skilled at hand-to-hand combat using a variety of cutting weapons, the result being some gruesome deaths. The most skilled of course is the Warrior, who improbably takes on wave after wave of Wirepa’s men, suffering their cutting strikes while responding with deadly precision. Because Fraser has allowed us to spend time with Wirepa’s tribe, not all of these men are easy to root against, so we are transfixed by the battle itself, by its participants’ athleticism, and by the meaning invested within the fight. Here is an action film that affords its viewers the benefit of perspective, one that wants us to see the fighting end.
Director: Toa Fraser
Writer: Glenn Standring
Starring: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, George Hanare, Raukura Turei, Rena Owen
Release Date: April 17, 2015 in theaters and VOD
Tampa-based critic (and full-time marketing guy) Anthony Salveggi has been reviewing films since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter, which he occasionally remembers to update. He’s trying real hard to be the shepherd.