"Once Were Warriors" could have been made about any of the warrior-peoples of the world who have been removed from their culture and their calling by the one enemy they could never vanquish -- economic reality. It could be the Comanche, the Mescalero Apache, the Zulu or, for the matter, the U.S. Special Forces. It happens to be about the Maori of New Zealand.
Adorned with fierce tribal tattoos that lit up their faces like demons from the unconscious, they fought the British to a near-standstill in the 19th century in one of the bloodiest of all colonial occupations. Now, late in the 20th, they live in beer-soaked, government-dole squalor on the edges of New Zealand's graffiti-spangled larger cities.
Of the men, the proudest and toughest is Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison) and the most beautiful woman his wife, Beth (Rena Owen). A hundred years ago, they'd have been warrior chief and earth mother of the tribe. And, like natural aristocrats driven by high-octane DNA to replicate, they've produced a brood of equally beautiful, intelligent, resilient and fierce children, warriors each regardless of gender.
But there are no battles left to fight, except against themselves. The worst that can be said of "Once Were Warriors" is that underneath, it's a fairly routine kitchen-sink melodrama, of a drunken, unemployed husband who beats his wife and ignores his kids, and the consequences of that reality are worked out in melancholy progression, including traumatic injury, petty crime, rape and suicide. The best is that the acting is so fine and fierce and that both Jake and Beth live so vividly on screen that the movie becomes, though nearly unbearably harrowing, at the same time liberating.
In any army, Jake would be the top sergeant: strong, brave and capable, he oozes testosterone, and he loves to fight. Early in the film, we watch him navigate his way into a punch-out with a fearsome bully we've just seen flatten three men.
Jake just wants to get it on; that's his character. The fight is brief and spectacular: Jake has incredibly fast hands, and his blizzard of rights and lefts pummels the larger, slower man to the ground in a few furious seconds. Jake pronounces his verdict on his fallen opponent, who'd hoisted iron in prison to beef up: "Too much weight, not enough speed." Naturally, his mates love this: More beer, Mabel!
When the bar closes, he brings the party home, and consequently, home life is a shambles, as every night, all the mates and their wives and girlfriends gather downstairs to drink and party the night away. Meanwhile, Beth struggles with the family, which insists on unraveling under the pressure. One son joins a gang and comes home with his face adorned with the gang's tattoos; another is shipped to reform school; the eldest daughter struggles for a place in her increasingly chaotic world.
Jake's terrible secret is that the violence that expresses him so perfectly cannot be controlled; when he loses it, he'll attack anybody. His eyes blaze with rage, his fists knit up, his instincts toward aggression blow all the circuits in his mind, and he starts battering. The beating he gives his wife, in full view of his terrified friends, is sickening and horrifying, and director Lee Tamahori, Maori himself, doesn't mince images. It leaves Beth shattered, her face almost unrecognizable.
In the morning, of course, Jake can't remember doing it; or if he can, it's her fault, she was lippy. "Don't get me mad," he instructs her, absolving himself of all responsibility. "Now, what's for breakfast?"
"Once Were Warriors" is primarily an argument, familiar to the literature of all unhappily assimilated peoples. That is: Old ways or new ways? An undercurrent in the film is bitter nostalgia over the rapidly vanishing rural tribal culture, and the one hero is the reform school principal who reinculcates that culture to his charges.
It is, in some sense, an anti-assimilationist rant, and it loves and finds brutal power in the images of the Maori "natural man," with his warrior's power and his mask of tattoos (the Maori gang members make the Droogs of "A Clockwork Orange" look like Cub Scouts). That may be unrealistic, but it is certainly powerful.
It's a fine, fierce and nearly unforgettable movie.
"Once Were Warriors"
Starring Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Released by Fine Line