The Dead Lands hits the ground with a running man, the camera jolting through the forest like a startled bird buzzing from branch to branch. He ducks and weaves through unsteady ground, foliage and low hanging branches, desperately fleeing for his life. That desperation reaches fever pitch when the end comes upon him. Cornered by a man, or a myth depending on your outlook, he’s smashed to the floor in a burst of clinically effective bloodletting. Toa Fraser’s film excels in these moments only to be let down by an inhibiting conventionality and too many dry spells.
Tribal dynamics in theory lie at the heart of a journey into revenge and retribution, but remain mostly untroubled by a sparse screenplay. They’re sacrificed for the thrill of the chase and, more disappointingly, frequent diversions into overlong hallucinations and unconvincing character detail. Hongi (James Rolleston) is our guide to this world. The spindly son of a local chief, his dreams of becoming a warrior are gently dismissed by a caring father who worries he’s not cut for the martial life.
It ends up thrust on him anyway when a detachment of warriors from a rival tribe, led by the ever smirking Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) conjure up a pretence for war and massacre his tribe. Hongi only just escapes with his life, a lucky occurrence that sees him branded a coward by his surviving sister. A mad pursuit to exact blood, and Wirepa’s foolish decision to take a short-cut across the dead lands, a haunted patch of ground belonging to a now deceased tribe, brings the snarling demon from the start into play as The Warrior (Lawrence Makoare) enters the fray on the side of Hongi.
Much of this feels overly familiar as the cycle of revenge is hammered home repeatedly across a standard arc. No effort is made to distinguish between the tribes, or even to visualise them as anything beyond intimidatingly effective warriors. The only division is a blunt one between Hongi’s noble quest to return his fathers severed head and Wirepa’s vicious expansionism. In between, The Warrior flits from savage killer to surrogate father with all the fluidity of a man learning mechanical life lessons.
There’s also significant drag in a story that consists of little beyond hunting and fighting. After a particularly bruising encounter, Hongi and The Warrior retreat into conversation with the mystical ancients, summoned of course through the consumption of hallucinogens. Momentum drains as they begin to amble around the lush greenery soul searching in a screenplay that forgot to give anyone a soul to find.
Fraser and screenwriter Glenn Standring do hold two trump cards that rescue their floundering film. The first is an eye for feverish action. Given that the fighting style appears to be one of savage blows with relatively blunt weaponry, there’s a stylised feel out of keeping with the actualities of human combat. It often feels more like ballet than butchery but there’s a vehemence that breathes energy and tension into the frequent set piece showdowns.
The second card is The Warrior, a bitter lunatic who’s spent years turning himself into an avenging spirit who thinks nothing of killing innocents who’ve strayed onto his land. His hip-swaying, tongue waggling abuse holds attention before gradually fracturing in the face of his new parental responsibilities. His regret filled life is the only one that feels complete.
Part of the wonder of cinema is the opportunity to delve into otherwise hidden worlds. The Dead Lands carries the whiff of an opportunity to do this before it floats away in the breeze. Instead, it toys with the habits of Maori warrior culture without ever bothering to properly engage. It’s a perfectly serviceable action thriller that would have been better off with the glimmers of ambition stripped out.