It’s not just a clever name. There are a serious amount of corpses strewn across The Dead Lands. A curious proposition: a pre-European colonised New Zealand action-er telling of the revenge one young Maori boy exacts against a rival tribe with the help of a “mystical” warrior.
Directed by Tao Fraser, who previously directed the Peter O’ Toole featuring period drama Dean Spanley, The Dead Lands is an interesting change in direction. You get the feeling that he may have been inspired somewhat by Gareth Evans The Raid. Although not as relentless as that action masterpiece the plot here is designed for wall-to-wall action sequences and a high body count – man kills boy’s family, boy kills man’s tribe.
The setting of this ancient Maori period does offer the film some interesting quirks. There are a number of dream sequences – which could also be taking place on a different physical plane – given to how well disposed you to the film by these points they will either add a mystical charm which invokes the spirituality of the time period… or it will look like an old lady floating around in a plush looking cocoon. The violence also had the potential for some truly bone crunching feats instead though the film goes down the root of balletic choreography involving spears and knives. A great deal of The Dead Lands is tinged with “oh you’re doing this instead of that… that might have been cooler”. A great deal of the fight scenes also involve the old trope of one bad guy fights the hero at a time despite their being a literal tribe of villains standing around watching. It’s never made sense of looked good it continues not too.
That’s not to say there aren’t pleasures to be had. James Rolleston as Hongi, our young hero is a watchable screen presence despite his age. The transformation from naive whipper snapper to hardened warrior being a largely smooth one. Lawrence Makoare’s “The Warrior” manages to be both a terrifying, blood-lusting creation with a deeper undercurrent which renders him a much more intriguing character. Elsewhere the bad guys do a lot of hissing and wide-eyed crazy stares. Perhaps authentic of the warrior style of the period but after an hour and a half you may one to give them a slap yourself.
Despite reservations about some of it’s style The Dead Lands does work best when it’s in pursuit mode. Big men with swords squaring up to each other and coming out with apocalyptic threats does hold some excitement. Whenever the chase stops though and director Fraser consciously slows the pace down that things seem to drag.
That being said the time period is invoked beautifully. The richness of the forest setting is brought to the fore and the world is immersive. The Dead Lands does end up being a slight disappointment. A classic story told in a fresh time period but some old cliches and stylistic choices prevent it from being this years The Raid 2 – the search continues.
Dir: Toa Fraser
Scr: Glenn Standring
Starring: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka
Prd: Matthew Metcalfe, Glenn Standring
DOP: Leon Narbey
Music: Don McGlashan
Country: New Zealand/UK
Run time: 107 mins
The Dead Lands is in cinemas from May 29th 2015 via Icon Film Distribution.