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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 04.17.15] New Zealand action

When James Cameron starts toting something, people tend to pay attention (he is, after all, the self proclaimed king of the world) so when marketing for The Dead Lands, a movie that appeared to be little more than a Maori version of Apocalypto, included words of praise from Cameron, I figured what the heck. It can't be that bad if Cameron likes it...

A double narrative tale of self discovery, The Dead Lands opens with warring Maori tribes coming together in apparent reconciliation but the visiting tribe never intended friendship and in the cover of night, they attack the village, killing the chieftain and most of the tribe's men leaving only the chieftain's teenage son to seek revenge on behalf of his people. But he's just a boy who doesn't really know what he's doing and in an act of both chance and genius, he teams up with a disgraced warrior who most believe to be some supernatural entity – he is that swift at the hunt and kill.

The pair forge an unlikely alliance and along the way, the young warrior finds himself and grows into a man worthy of leading a his own tribe while the disgraced warrior finds inner peace. Roll credits.

One doesn't go into The Dead Lands for the story but rather for the promised action stuffed between overwrought story beats. The hitch is that there's isn't nearly enough of it.

There's plenty of melodrama between the young man and the warrior as the pair navigate their partnership. There's also the characters dealing with their inner drama and fighting their personal demons (which includes dream sequences which would have been awesome to watch after a couple of hits of ganja but are just a little bit weird). The first dramatic moment between the young man and the warrior is interesting, particularly because it provides great insight into the warrior but The Dead Lands becomes bogged down by endless scenes of exposition which is sad because the movie's opening act is the perfect balance of exposition and action, beautifully setting up the world and the players without endless scenes of talking in circles.

The only thing that keeps The Dead Lands afloat in the final two acts is the action which is, simply put, spectacular. The hand-to-hand combat choreography is complicated and exciting to watch and reminded me a great deal of the level of technicality of both of The Raid (review, review) movies but almost as impressive as the action itself is how the scenes are captured. I was mesmerized by the "how did they do that?" aspect of the sequences, most of which unfold in the bush. The action isn't only beautifully captured but visceral. Cinematographer Leon Narbey (of Whale Rider fame) deserves much credit for his outstanding work here because the action propels the movie forward through the very pretty but far less interesting dramatic sequences.

Writer Glenn Standring gets too caught up with over explaining character motivation and conflict, bringing The Dead Lands into a slow crawl for spans of time but the action sequences are so good, they're more than enough of a reason to see the movie and if you can, on the big screen.

The Dead Lands opens in theatres and is available on VOD April 17.

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