Review: The Dead Lands
PLOT: A young Maori tribesman must survive in the New Zealand jungle after his entire tribe is slaughtered.
REVIEW: THE DEAD LANDS comes with some intriguing advance word-of-mouth, most of it drummed up by the publicity department: Evidently, James Cameron's a big fan and gives it his endorsement, while the project is also fond of touting its "ancient form of martial arts" called Mau Rakau, which was apparently practiced by New Zealand's Maori tribes back before colonization. I only bring these things up because they were supposedly ways in which this action-adventure differed from the norm, but the truth is, THE DEAD LANDS is very much content to tell an old story in old ways, with tropes, characters and hero-villain dynamics we've seen plenty of times before. It's not without the odd moment of excitement, but overall this is a fairly standard exercise.
Said action takes place immediately after two clans of Maori warriors attempt to make a delicate truce. One clan is led by elderly Tane (George Henare), who appears eager to keep the peace, while the other is represented by brash Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), who immediately seems untrustworthy and dangerous. (To the audience, that is.) Soon after the tribes meet, Tane's son, Hongi (not considered much of a warrior), witnesses Wirepa shadily desecrate some of his own ancestors remains, which he promptly blames on Hongi (James Rolleston). Wirepa's plot to ignite a feud works and he and his crew decimate the more civil tribe, leaving Hongi the lone survivor.
Naturally, Hongi has to man up pretty quickly after this ordeal and avenge the injustice. Fleeing into an area known as "The Dead Lands" and pursued by his enemies, Hongi meets up with the one known as "the monster," who is but a man, albeit a vicious one. Dealing with traumas of his own, this warrior swiftly teaches Hongi how to fight, and together they take on the violent marauders.
THE DEAD LANDS's spiritual counterpart is APOCALYPTO, with a large portion of the film focusing on action set-pieces and chases. However, this isn't as dynamically directed or engaging as Gibson's flick. It's certainly earnest, but the (subtitled) dialogue is stilted and the performers - while clearly giving it their best - can't really inject the necessary pathos or humanity into the proceedings. (Though Moakoare as the wise savage warrior is periodically fun to watch.) If National Geographic made an R-rated movie heavy on tribal combat, this is what it would look like, with everything quite on-the-nose.
Director Toa Fraser shows some flair during the fight sequences but not so much with pacing; though the film is indeed heavy on the action, it drags whenever someone’s not getting beaten or slain. In other words, THE DEAD LANDS absolutely feels its almost two-hour runtime. It's not actually bad, per se, it's just there, flaunting some potential but never rising above average.