Like a Kiwi cousin to Mel Gibson’s historical indigenous spectacle Apocalypto, director Toa Fraser’s feral action epic drops viewers into the warring rivalries of Maori tribes (subtitled for your pleasure) in some indiscriminate, pre-colonial New Zealand.
Chockablock with macho athleticism, a stylized variation on the ancient martial art mau rakau that implements short-handled paddles, and taunting tongue-flicks that would make Gene Simmons envious, the film is undeniably elevated by its exotic milieu.
It’s a shame, then, that it’s stuck with such a familiar coming-of-age call to adventure: Falsely accused of desecrating ancestral remains by the duplicitous Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), unskilled chieftain’s son Hongi (Boy‘s James Rolleston, now a teenager) must find his bravery to avenge his beheaded father and slaughtered tribe.
Into the forbidden woods our hero-to-be runs, tracking down and recruiting — as aided by his dead grandmother’s ghostly vision — an unstoppable, cannibalistic “monster” of a warrior (Lawrence Makoare). Essentially a single, overlong, wearyingly violent chase sequence with shout-outs to honor and maintaining traditions, the story isn’t much more than an excuse to keep the artery-spraying war of attrition going. But the quick, modern editing style belies the authenticity of those rugged, tattooed faces.