What 300 does to project Sparta’s glorious lust for battle upon more civilized audiences, The Dead Lands intends to do for the native Maori culture of New Zealand. All the casting is locally sourced (something 300 might have flubbed a bit), lush and exotic locales call back to “simpler” times, and character motivations boil down to animalistic assertions of alpha dominance, which are the only matters that director Toa Fraser deals with. His film might as well be re-titled History Of The Bro Pt. 1, since Glenn Standring’s screenplay never reaches past a simple-as-pie revenge arc, but historical differences do their best to assert some sort of aboriginal individuality versus just any loin-cloth strapped imitator. Key words – “do their best.”
The Dead Lands tells the tale of a Maori teenager named Hongi (James Rolleston), who seeks revenge after most of his tribe is dishonorably slaughtered by rival warriors. Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), the leader of those who treacherously killed all the Maori men, starts his journey home with blood on his hands, but Hongi is determined to make Wirepa pay for his actions. After Wirepa decides to take a shortcut through a cursed region known as the “Dead Lands,” Hongi teams up with the legendary warrior (Lawrence Makoare) who haunts the forsaken ground, mauling anyone who dares cross his path. Together, Hongi and the demon warrior hunt Wirepa’s gang of thugs, until honor is completely restored.
And that, in its entirety, is The Dead Lands. There’s tons of primal grunting, flicking tongues, animated warrior dances, and plenty of caved-in skulls at the hand of blunt paddles. There are momentary breakaways when Hongi enters a dreamlike conversation with his Grandmother (Rena Owen), set against a hazy green starscape, but a majority of the film focuses only on each battle’s crushing brutality. People die, Wirepa flees, Hongi pursues, and then more people die. You can rinse and repeat this cycle for what turns into an over-bloated almost-two-hours, and you’ll probably need to with the redundant amount of blood that’ll be covering your appropriately-garbed man thong come the film’s flaky finale.
There’s no denying that Fraser knows how to shoot a film, but this isn’t the problem with The Dead Lands. Things may get a bit frantic in the heat of battle, and the camera may swing around with wild abandon, but these tribesmen gloriously represent a lost time when debts were settled with sacrifices in the name of an honorable death. The warriors are properly tattooed, battlegrounds are chosen based on visual grandeur, and the most vibrant parts of New Zealand are harnessed in all their primitive glory. The pounding tribal drums become a beating heart that pumps energy throughout Fraser’s vision, serving as the driving force behind heightened levels of intensity that burst from inside a mighty warrior’s spirit.
But unless savage acts of war are your bread and butter, the repetition factor of Hongi’s quest becomes more unstable as time presses on. Every conversation revolves around the word “honor” in some way, whether Hongi remarks about restoring his father’s, or Makoare’s urban legend discusses how there’s nothing respectable about serving with honor, but redundancy becomes one of the biggest detriments of such a noble quest. The “Dead Lands” may strike fear into Wirepa’s tribe, but that inherent ferocity slowly dissipates over time. You’d think as the body count continued to tally up, so would the level of entertainment. Instead, The Dead Lands becomes much more of a cursed chore than it should be, like a beat-em-up video game that reruns the same AI function level after level. Authenticity surely remains an intricate part of Standring’s story, but so do questionable character decisions that use nothing but “glory” as a motivator.
These early days of steroid-less machismo are really something to marvel, when warriors could achieve dangerous levels of testosterone simply by imagining a sweet victory, but Hongi’s ancient cat-and-mouse game grows tiresome as his spirit flourishes. It’s a bit like if The Princess Bride was comprised solely of Inigo Montoya running from castle to castle saying “You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Without any comedic inclination. The Dead Lands starts on an extremely favorable foot, but as Hongi logs miles on his path to bloody redemption, each step becomes more calculated than the last. Wooden weapons and historical tidbits aside, this battle-ready phenomenon turns from fascinating to forgettable by the time the last head is cracked open, making for a mixed watch that sadly ends on a weak down-note. Weak despite the muscly native fighters, that is.
This bloody quest for vengeance becomes burdened by too much of a good thing, as brutal fight sequences become repetitive over The Dead Lands' all-too-long running time.