We used to scour the video shop looking for films to grab for a nights entertainment and always went to the new releases as a first stop, hoping to get something watchable or at least downright rubbish that we could have a laugh during. I remember seeing the cover of Once Were Warriors after it came out in 1994 and thinking it was probably going to be a violent gang epic and hurrying back with it. I would have been part right and it was within that genre to a certain extent and followed in a long line of films that I had enjoyed from Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) to Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia (1984) and Taylor Hackford’s Blood In Blood Out (1993). This turned out to be something rather different though and came from New Zealand a country that apart from the splattery early epics of Peter Jackson and Jane Campion’s The Piano was a place we had hardly seen a huge amount of movies from at the time. We were actually still just about recovering from another type of gang warfare from that part of the world in the form of Geoffrey Wright’s Australian skinhead flick Romper Stomper (1992) and our lives were just about to be traumatised all over again.
Let’s put it simply, this one hit like a fucking brick!
Once Were Warriors could be looked upon as a domestic drama, the likes of which were totally alien to anyone in England brought up on a diet of films by Mike Leigh but somewhere else that life was far from sweet. The film centres on the family of domineering drunken bruiser Jake (The Muss) Hake (Temuera Morrison) his struggling abused wife Beth (Rena Owen) and their tribe of kids. Jake has just been laid off work but is not upset about it in the slightest; the family is already on the verge of collapse with eldest son Nig in the throes of joining an outlaw biker gang and middle son Boogie just about to be sent to a remand home. It’s largely left to Beth and elder daughter Grace to hold things together and look after the two younger kids in the family, protecting them from their father’s violent outbursts. At first Jake seems like a nice kind of anti-hero. Sure he likes a drink and then some and the local bar is the sort of place you wouldn’t want to venture into as he slugs it out with the other meatheads there whilst consuming bottles by the crate with his mates Bully and Dooley. At the end of the day what he likes most is a good old sing song and indeed so does everyone else, which they do in style back at the house at one of many post pub parties. The real problem is that wives should know their place and not annoy their husbands in this culture and when it literally hits the domestic violence dished out is as harrowing as it is unexpected and is guaranteed to make you wince in horror.
Everything about the film is nihilistic and bleak, there is little joy in the lives of all those in it. The only exception is when they join together in song and when Jake, after winning at the horses, pays for a hire car so they can all go and visit Boogie. Naturally even that doesn’t end well and the delight of seeing the family all sing along to ‘What’s The Time Mister Wolf’ is short lived. Family, tradition and tribalism is very important to the film especially from the viewpoint of the Maori culture which Grace and her clan derive from, something that Jake has been shunned from and has nothing but contempt for. Also it is seen in the gang culture which Nig is drawn into from brutal initiation rights to dramatic facial tattoos. All worlds must eventually join together and they do in a way that the viewer may not anticipate but in one that is guaranteed to haunt for a very long time.
Of the hundreds of films that I have awaiting an upgrade from DVD to Blu-Ray this one was highly anticipated. I have loved (if that is the right word) Once Were Warriors from first viewing and have had on video and DVD along with its sequel What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, the books of both films by Alan Duff and even the poster and essential soundtrack CD. I had not watched it for a few years and was overjoyed when the clarity of the very first shot jumped out the screen Second Sight have done a great job here and the movie looks fresh and vibrant. For a debut feature it is remarkable and it is no surprise that director Tamahori went on to helm the likes of Hollywood blockbusters Die Another Day (2002) and xXx State Of The Union (2005). However what really makes this film work on so many levels is the exceptional performances of the cast members some of whom you may well be wondering what happened to. This was something I was certainly intrigued by too as it had been on my mind a bit after having been surprised at seeing Cliff Curtis (Bully) in a lead part on Fear Of The Walking Dead recently. Luckily the first of two features, a 52 minute “where are they now” documentary is included to fill in the gaps.
Narrated by Julian Arahanga, Nig in the film who is now a filmmaker himself Once Were Warriors’ is described as “the single most important film to come out the country.” Sporting a distinct lack of facial tattoos he is first off to Queensland to visit sister Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) for the first time in 15 years. Packing her off to NZ for the reunion he next goes to get Rena Owen in LA and calls in to see Bully, Cliff Curtis in Venice Beach. Unfortunately the latter is working on a new TV series (that’ll no doubt be Fear The Walking Dead) and can’t make it back home. Some family members are far from little kids now and are dairy farmers and running food joints, we catch up with them briefly before another main character Boogie Taungaroa Emile who has been acting on stage and screen through the years. Naturally there is a big man missing Temuera Morrison, Jake the Muss himself but he doesn’t look quite so big now especially compared to whopping screen son Joseph Kairau who played tiny Huata. “This is weird,” he says and indeed it is for the viewer too especially when they have lived with the on screen characters over so many viewings down the years. With the likes of director Lee Tamahori and producer Robin Scholes on hand to fill in the gaps there is no shortage of stories and reminisces on the making of the movie. To hear them though, well you are going to have to get the film. To quote Rena Owen “you will never forget when and where you first saw Once Were Warriors.” No denying that.
Following this is a half hour interview with the director. He thought that it was a risk as it could have effectively scuppered his career before it had even started. The gamble paid off though and it did the opposite. Getting the film commission to back it was another case but they finally got there despite the grim subject matter and the rest is history. Funnily enough he mentions Ken Loach and Mike Leigh too as well as making the film in a style that would “keep the audience glued to their seats.” There’s so many damn memorable scenes in the film that he definitely achieved this as an end result.
As is the trend with films from the era the BBFC have downgraded the film from its original 18 to a 15 certificate but don’t let that fool you in the slightest. Once Were Warriors still hits like a fucking brick and is a film that demands to be seen.