We don’t get all that many movies in the Maori language, let alone an action/adventure epic that takes place in the pre-colonial era of New Zealand’s history. Those two factors alone warrant at least a passing glance at Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands, a fascinating and frequently brutal tale of loyalty, revenge, and ancient tribal warfare. One could also include the fact that The Dead Lands was New Zealand’s entry for the 2014 Academy Awards, or that no less of a filmmaker than James Cameron (a man who knows his action) called the movie “an absolute adrenaline rush,” and suddenly The Dead Lands seems more than a little intriguing.
But none of that fascinating trivia would matter all that much if The Dead Lands wasn’t a particularly good film, which it is. Directed by Toa Fraser (2008’s Dean Spanley) with a dual focus on cultural accuracy and eye-popping action craziness, The Dead Lands might start out a bit like a Conan the Barbarian retread (a young, naive kid is the only one left alive after his village is attacked by vicious enemies), and sometimes it feels more than a little inspired by the gritty-yet-slick jungle mayhem of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, but it gradually transforms into its own unique beast.
Fifteen-year-0ld Hongi (James Rolleston) has no hope of catching up with the tribe of savages that just slaughtered his whole village, but he does have a plan: deep in a section of the wilds known as “The Dead Lands,” there lives a legendarily insane warrior who will kill (and eat!) anyone who enters his domain. With literally nothing left to lose, Hongi decides to brave the unholy grounds and plead his case to the aforementioned insane warrior, as played (quite brilliantly) by the effortlessly intimidating (Lord of the Rings veteran) Lawrence Makoare. Eventually the allegedly immortal warrior teaches Hongi a few things about how to kill the savage known Wirepa (an intensely awesome Te Kohe Tuhaka), but — given the hermit’s secret reasons for his reclusive behavior — this never becomes a conventional “master & student” relationship.
Although beautifully shot and refreshingly sincere about portraying a race that doesn’t get all that many action epics to call their own, The Dead Lands is, at its heart, a pretty basic series of attacks, chases, escapes, and brutal dispatches. When it slows down long enough for Hongi and his new mentor to discuss the ways of the warrior, the nature of bravery, and the importance of honor (and to plan their next assault on the retreating villains, of course), The Dead Lands seems to have a lot more on its mind that simple spectacle. Then another enjoyably exhausting action sequence suddenly pops up, and it is pretty impressive stuff.
Kudos to Toa Fraser and screenwriter Glenn Standring on presenting an exotic action epic that resurrects an age and culture we don’t normally see in the movies all that often — and to cinematographer Leon Narbey for earning his paycheck and then some. Not to mention the stuntmen. Dear lord do they take a lot of punishment in The Dead Lands.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos