My limited experience with Maori cinema includes Once Were Warriors, a very heavy drama, and Whale Rider, a more inspirational but also dramatically fraught story. The Deadlands is no less serious a tale of Maori warriors, but as a piece of Maori action cinema it is much more visceral.
The story itself is familiar. Hongi (James Rolleston) survives the slaughter of his entire tribe and avenges them. That’s Conan the Barbarian and many archetypal warrior stories. Since there’s only one of him, he teams up with a Warrior (Lawrence Makoare) but that’s also a common theme of John Woo and other action movies, the uneasy alliance/bonding with an adversary.
It’s the Maori twist on this story that we haven’t seen before, at least in this country where the examples of Maori cinema I cited are decades apart. We’ve seen jungle warriors and tribal spirituality too, but there are endless variations in the cultures on Earth, including the underrepresented Maori.
The most superficially noticeable distinction of Maori character is the warriors sticking their tongues out. It is a meaningful form of expression I don’t pretend to know entirely, but it doesn’t take a scholar to sense how it communicates and intimidates. Then the specific attitudes, look and movement of the characters identifies The Deadlands as specifically Maori.
Because of some of the familiarity of narrative, I wasn’t totally invested in the story of The Deadlands but when Hongi sprang into action I appreciated this take on the classic tale. The moves are brutal, with weapons that seem to be both sharp and blunt simultaneously. A single blow will slice a throat open and pound a skull into oblivion.
Director Toa Fraser shoots the fights with handheld cameras, but he’s actually trying to keep the fighters in frame which sets it above the Paul Greengrass style. By the time the enemy tribe falls into a trap and exchanges spears and fireballs with Hongi, the ingenuity both sides display utilizing forest materials is impressive.
The Deadlands opens Friday, April 17 in the States in theaters and VOD. I wouldn’t say you need to rush out and see it in theaters, although I’m sure the scope of the film will make it worthwhile. I’d at least recommend the VOD to see some brutally violent action with a different twist.