Review: Brutality & Warrior Code Will Transport You in 'Dead Lands'
by Jeremy Kirk
April 23, 2015
As far as the English dictionary goes, all the synonyms we have for the word "brutal" have a difficult time doing justice to the level of violence on display in New Zealand's The Dead Lands. From the visceral and energetic opening scene, the tribal actioner proves its worth in blood spilt and limbs lopped off. It's a virtual candy store for martial arts fanatics and hand-to-hand junkies, but this Maori tale of honor and vengeance slowly wears down under the weight of all that visual carnage. The level of brutality holds up in The Dead Lands. The story, though itself drenched with grand ideas of legends, Gods, and monsters, barely clicks.
At the center of the film is Hongi, the young son of a Maori chieftain whose clan is betrayed by Wirepa, the visiting son of another tribe. Wirepa has visions of himself being a great warrior leading his men into battle, though his actions are far less than honorable. Hongi is soon left without a tribe of his own, his father and fellow warriors having been viciously attacked by Wirepa and his men and the young son of the slain chief carrying the blame for his father's death.
As you may have guessed, revenge is on the menu for Hongi, and he treks out to follow Wirepa and his men and take his vengeance again them. Being a novice on the field of battle himself, Hongi requests the aid of a man simply known as The Warrior, a man who is viewed by most as more a monster. You see, The Warrior has acquired a taste for human flesh, his sadistic tendencies giving him complete reign over the area known as The Dead Lands. Hongi will have to survive this forbidden area and his newfound "companion" if his vengeance is to be fulfilled.
Screenwriter Glenn Standring and director Toa Fraser establish rather quickly the turbulent world we find in The Dead Lands. The opening duel is a ferocious hand-to-hand melee that, while it's importance to the story at hand is questionable, definitely demonstrates not only the barbarity of the world in which we find ourselves but that of The Warrior, himself.
Standring and Fraser show a respect for the warrior code in the characters they've created and stages on which they place them. As undoubtedly the most interesting character, The Warrior is on that perfect ledge of gray that's on the very brink of falling into darkness. He's not a moral man but a savage who has done horrible things. It's his placement in this wild habitat that gives his actions justification. The guilt he hangs on his own head and his understanding that his soul is damned tells us he has something of a moral compass. He just doesn't follow it. Even The Warrior's sense of humor, which genuinely comes through in Lawrence Makoare's surprising performance, has a strong hand in this ability to identify with him.
With every bloody, battered, and brutish action we see The Warrior and the rest of the Maori take, our understanding of their world and our discomfort in being there continually grow in equal measures. Long before Hongi and The Warrior come face to face The Dead Lands has all but convinced you of its anything-goes attitude and kitchen-sink violence. You'll be playing the battles out in your head for days if you're not sickened by the sight of them.
It's unfortunate, then, that The Dead Lands sets up such a fascinating world and builds such an interesting yet offbeat tone and pace only to have it ride such an average high in its climactic scenes. The brutality is there, no doubt, but a number of subplots and ideas gets swirled around the central story with such fleeting importance that you begin to see they're all circling around a big, empty space. The basic ideas still come through in Hongi and The Warrior's stories, but much of The Dead Lands feels like loose thread.
There's still an abundance to take in with The Dead Lands. Even though the story doesn't completely follow through on the strange and unforgiving world in which it's set, it still presents us with this world. Fraser still brings it to life with atmosphere and an enveloping eye. You may not always connect with The Dead Lands, but you'll damn sure feel like you've been there and back. You may even get whiplash in the process.