Gut-wrenchingly honest and at times difficult to watch, Once Were Warriors is a forgotten masterpiece. It has a distinctive visual style, colors are intense and the picture is clear and just a little bit grainy. Not too much, but just nineties grainy. And don’t get me started on the sets. They look like actual houses, bars, and shops. So, when Rena Owen as Beth Heke is sitting in her chair, smoking cigarette and finishing her beer it feels natural. It feels almost voyeuristic and yet endearing regardless of what’s going on.
And that’s the thing about Once Were Warriors, it has this “life goes on” learning curve going on. And a dose of healthy blind optimism. Just like in real life, different moods, events, and characters create this experience that we can observe and hopefully learn something from it. I remember all the hype around this movie in the nineties. Probably because it was relatively cheap to get and it was actually a good movie.
At that time, I was in my teens and idiotically fascinated with the whole Maori gang subculture. This was something exotic, new, and very appealing to me. However, once I started to watch the movie I realized that I got much more than I bargained for. Actually, it took me more than ten years to watch it again and another ten years to review it. It’s a movie that has a little something for everybody and I highly recommend you watch it with someone.
We follow Heke’s, a dysfunctional family barely surviving in the rough neighborhood on the outskirts of South Auckland. You might say that Once Were Warriors is New Zealand’s answer to a wave of American hood movies. Most notably Boyz n the Hood. However, you should also know that Alan Duff’s bestselling novel was released in 1990. It blends so many different themes and issues into one powerful narrative that it’s no wonder it became the highest-grossing film of all time in New Zealand.
Meet Jake Heke or Jake The Muss, as his friends like to call him. He’s a strong Maori man who likes to drink and have a good time. However, Jake also has a temper, something that his wife Beth and their five kids know all too well. Today, he’s in a good mood and soon invites the whole bar back to his house for an afterparty. At first, everything seems to be going well but then something horrible happens…
As much as Temuera Morrison’s powerful performance as Jake Heke anchored the movie so did Rena Owen’s. Actually, most of the cast looked up to her on set as she set the mood perfectly. I wonder how the younger generations are going to react when they find out that Temuera, whom they know as Jango or Bobba Fet, was also in movies this.
As a bonus, we get young Cliff Curtis whom you might remember from such movies as Sunshine and Training Day. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the young actors, especially Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell. All of them are playing very fleshed-out and authentic characters. Characters that you want to know more about. I feel like after the movie ends I could continue watching stories about Nig, Boogie or Toot.
Finally, I just want to say that when the movie is over the most frightening thought crept into my head. This is really happening out there somewhere. And not only happening, but it has also happened and will happen again and again. And I don’t know how to stop that. I will spare you my tribal system of values rant as it would take too much space to first define it, separate it from the Maori and then finally integrate again.
Once Were Warriors is a rare gem and I don’t recall seeing a movie like this released recently. It reflects real-life issues that are still plaguing our society to this very day. The rates of just alcoholism and tobacco use among the Maori population are disproportionally high. The same goes for gang memberships. Pushed to the fringes of society they are just trying to survive in this harsh and unjust world. If you’re looking for something similar check out The Dark Horse from 2014 and also starring Cliff Curtis.
Director: Lee Tamahori
Writers: Riwia Brown, Alan Duff
Cast: Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Julian Arahanga, Taungaroa Emile, Cliff Curtis, Pete Smith
Fun Facts: Temuera Morrison would get challenged to fight all the time by local thugs