Country: United States
Director: Lee Tamahori
TRASH CINEMA ESSENTIAL MOVIE
I think Once Were Warriors, which turned out to be director Lee Tamahori’s calling card to Hollywood, was conceived as a serious film. But the truth is, the extreme nature of the melodrama and fight choreography peg it as trash cinema, which is not to put it down in the least.
The Maoris of New Zealand, like the American Indians of North America, have been marginalized in their own country. Their culture has been rendered irrelevant by the British invaders. They now live in squalor. The men, who once were warriors, respond to their emasculation by either becoming drunks or directing their impotent rage at those around them, most tragically their families. The kids become gangbangers, stealing car radios, and practice rapping or snogging at a tragically young age.
Director Lee Tamahori brilliantly captures the theme of Once Were Warriors from the first shot, which starts from a closeup on a billboard depicting the pristine countryside of New Zealand, panning to the highway and squalor next to it.
Once you get over the shock of hearing a New Zealand English accent coming out of the mouths of the Maoris, you notice how incredible the acting is. As Jake, the patriarch of the Heke family, Temuera Morrison exudes brooding charisma and physicality. Rena Owen slips into the character of his hard-bitten wife Beth like a second skin. Cliff Curtis is fantastic as the family friend whose actions push Once Were Warriors into the realm of Shakespearian tragedy. Curtis has justifiably since become a major Hollywood character actor.
But best of all is the screenplay by Riwia Brown and the direction by Lee Tamahori, which are incredibly vivid. They capture the passion and the physicality of these people, and the sweaty squalor of their surroundings.
One thing I’ve gotta mention: the fight choreography is just harrowing, especially the domestic abuse.
Once Were Warriors is the best illustration I’ve seen of how colonialism and the marginalization of a vital indigenous society are the roots of a more or less permanent underclass that eats it’s own young, but the Once Were Warriors is not a dry social tract — it’s message is delivered in unforgettably personal and visceral terms. I defy anyone not to be moved by Once Were Warriors.