The Dead Lands, an import from New Zealand, is a breath of fresh air. It’s got enough hardcore action to please the most dedicated of fight fans, yet the film is far from empty-headed. There’s a cultural element to the story that sets it apart from other action pictures of this variety. If you’re in the mood to watch people beating the stuffing out of one another, you’ll get your money’s worth here. If you like some substance with your fisticuffs, you’ll get your money’s worth, and then some.
The movie tells the story of Hongi (James Rolleston), the son of a Maori chieftain. His people are slaughtered by a rival tribe, led by the villainous Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka). Hongi knows that he must avenge this act. He makes the risky decision of following Wirepa through a treacherous area known as “The Dead Lands,” which is rumored to be the stomping grounds of an undefeatable monster. Hongi meets that “monster,” a fearless fighter known as “the Warrior” (Lawrence Makoare) with a vested interest in keeping other tribes too frightened to set foot on his land. The two strike up a somewhat tenuous partnership that leads to significant bloodshed.
As a revenge thriller, The Dead Lands works extremely well. Director Toa Fraser gives the movie a tight pace, staging the action scenes with raw intensity. He avoids the temptation to over-stylize the violence, instead focusing on the brutality of hand-to-hand combat and close-range weapons. There are several hardcore fight sequences scattered throughout, all of which are shot in such a way that you can observe the intricate choreography, while simultaneously getting a thrill from their primal power. Hongi’s peril is always made clear, as he’s smaller and less outwardly fearsome than Wirepa and his men, which gives every battle a sense of meaning. That contrasts nicely with the Warrior, who psychologically intimidates his opponents before delivering a devastating beat-down. The Dead Lands culminates with a big battle at an outdoor fortress that pulls out all the stops.
What makes the movie special, though, is that it goes beyond mere tropes. A lot of revenge stories stop at “You killed my [fill in the blank], so now I must kill you!” The Dead Lands takes that a step further by including very specific details about tribal customs and Hongi’s need to honor his ancestors. Our hero isn’t merely seeking to get even; he’s trying to restore dignity and glory to his people, who have suffered a grave injustice. Because of their belief in an afterlife, he knows they are watching him from somewhere else, waiting for him to strike back on their behalf. His motivation comes from feeling the weight of that responsibility. Some of the most interesting scenes in the film find Hongi getting advice from his late grandmother, who appears to him in a celestial setting. Material like this helps to set The Dead Lands apart and give it a unique, meaningful twist.
For all the good stuff on display here, it’s hard to escape the thought that the movie would have played even more strongly than it does with some increased development of Hongi and his tribe before the massacre. This event happens almost right from the start — in the first ten minutes, in fact. Having more of a sense of their community might have maximized our emotional investment in the perilous journey Hongi embarks upon. There’s also a mini-subplot about a female warrior that feels slightly undercooked. An interesting seed is here, but not enough is done with it.
Even with a few minor issues, The Dead Lands is largely an entertaining action film that’s just offbeat enough to stand out. The performances, production design, and screenplay go to great lengths to be convincing, and it works; the movie implants you in another culture for two hours. Here’s more proof that action pictures are best when they forge a path all their own.