A unique setting only goes so far to elevate this clichéd action film
The Dead Lands
The word “cliché” is not necessarily a bad word, despite how much people use it to deride a film (including myself). When cliché gets thrown around as a criticism, it’s meant as a knock for going down a familiar, and therefore stale, route. But clichés can still work, because it’s all about the execution. Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands, an ’80s-inspired action/adventure about a son avenging his father’s death, has cliché written all over it, but Fraser, along with screenwriter Glenn Standring, transplant this story to a setting that’s never been done on film before. The change is a welcome one, but it can only take the material so far.
The film takes place in pre-colonial New Zealand, when Maori natives ruled the lands. In a matter of minutes, Fraser establishes the central conflict. During a peacekeeping mission between two opposing tribes, visiting tribal head Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) desecrates ancestral bones as a deliberate act of war. Hongi (James Rolleston), the teenage son of tribal chief Tane (George Henare), witnesses the act, but can’t do anything to warn his family; Wirepa and his men massacre Tane’s tribe, with Hongi barely escaping the slaughter. Now as the only man left in his tribe, Hongi goes off to hunt down and kill Wirepa to avenge his father’s death.
But how can a skinny, untrained 15-year-old boy defeat a vicious warrior? Hongi ventures into the titular Dead Lands, a nearby area that no one enters out of fear for their life. There’s a legend that the tribe who used to live on the land were killed and eaten by a monster, and anyone who goes into the Dead Lands will wind up suffering the same fate. Hongi meets the monster (Lawrence Makoare, credited only as ‘The Warrior’), a hulking man who gleefully feasts on the flesh of his victims. For reasons that the film vaguely alludes to (a secret that naturally has to come out by the third act), The Warrior agrees to help Hongi kill Wirepa, who just so happens to be arrogantly taking a shortcut through the Dead Lands back to his home.
The fact that Fraser and Standring went so far as to film The Dead Lands entirely in the native Maori language is admirable, and their respect for the traditions and culture of their characters is what elevates the film above a standard action film. Now, granted, anyone expecting The Dead Lands to be an accurate representation of the Maori way of life 500 years ago will come away disappointed; Fraser’s primary intention here is to deliver an entertaining piece of action. But the New Zealand location, along with the Maori’s distinct fighting style and philosophy, one that has both sides mutually respecting each other, give this film a sense of time and place that’s entirely its own.
Unfortunately, the familiar story and character beats drag Fraser’s film down, along with its poor pacing in the second half. A lengthy detour in the narrative pops up when Hongi and The Warrior meet a woman in the forest, with the entire sequence dedicated to getting The Warrior to come clean about his mysterious past. It’s an overlong and unnecessary section, building up to a reveal that isn’t particularly surprising. Thankfully the stellar cast, especially Makoare, keep things moving during the weaker segments, and Fraser’s frenetically crafted action sequences will please any action fan. But this is still a clichéd action film, albeit one with some intriguing elements. It’s the same old ride, just packaged in a more interesting way, and for that reason The Dead Lands can only offer minor pleasures.