Once Were Warriors

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An assault on the heart.

Feb 3, 2002
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:Gripping, powerful, brilliant acting.

Cons:Girls, have tissues handy.

The Bottom Line: Strap yourself in for a harrowing emotional rollercoaster. It's a film everyone should see at least once.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

Released in 1994, Once Were Warriors is the highest grossing movie ever to come out of the New Zealand film industry. Thereís a very good reason for that. Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece. A living, breathing ideal of what cinema can be.

Based on the novel by Alan Duff of the same name, Once Were Warriors takes its viewers on a painful yet somehow fascinating journey into the lives of a Maori (indigenous New Zealander) family. We watch them as an increasing cycle of domestic abuse begins to takes its heavy toll. Itís a theme thatís been used before, but never in such a powerful way.

Iím compelled to warn you that this film contains some disturbing concepts. It appears that director Lee Tamahori hasnít even considered pulling any punches. In fact, several scenes of this movie are the emotional equivalent of a crushing knee to the balls. They actually hurt the heart to see. In Tamahoriís defense, I must say that these scenes were absolutely necessary to convey Once Were Warriorís message. This isnít a sterile and saccharine sweet Sally Fields tele-movie on domestic violence.

Once Were Warriors is set in a poor suburb of Auckland (New Zealandís largest city). Itís one of those suburbs that demands that its inhabitants live right next to a noisey freeway. Weíve all driven through these types of places. You may have even caught yourself thanking your lucky stars that you donít live there yourself. The dead carcasses of cars are the playgrounds of kids, and endless chainlink fences give the place a zoo-like feel. This is where our Maori family live. Enter the Hekes.

Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison) and his wife Beth (Rena Owen) live in a small council house with four of their five children. The eldest kid, Nig (Julian Arahanga), a moody sort of lad, has gone off to join a gang. First impressions though convey a sedate happiness in the Heke household. Jake and Beth moan a little, but then again who doesnít? The familyís poor, but thereís definitely love and some good times in their home. However, when Jake loses his job at the seafood processing plant the thin veneer of contentment begins to corrode and what we begin to see underneath is not in the slightest bit pleasant.

Jakeís job mucking around with fish paid little more than the dole (unemployment benefits), but without it we see him quickly stripped of his dignity. He begins to spend most of his time down at the pub with his clique of decrepit mates. When Jake gets drunk his temper plays up in a big way, and the results are terrible to behold.

Thereís one scene at the pub, where Jake confronts a huge gorilla of a man thatís interrupted the girl singing on the stage by putting the jukebox on. Jake gives the rockape the greatest Ďhowís your father?í Iíve ever seen in a film. Itís the hiding to end all hidings. (Lads, this scene is worth the price of admission alone!)

Flogging a bloke down at the pub is one thing, but itís when Jake brings his temper home that we truly cringe and wish to look away. Bethís verbal barbs eventually triggers one of the saddest and most disturbing scenes of wife bashing youíre ever likely to see. You canít believe that youíre witnessing it. Jakeís genuinely remorseful the morning after, but the damage to their family is already done. The effects of the broken happiness between Jake and Beth ripples down to their children.

Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is a sensitive teenager that begins to drift away from his family and ends up getting up to mischief, stealing cars and the like. When eventually arrested heís sent off to a juvenile detention centre. Itís clear that he may have received a strict caution instead, but neither of his parents appeared at the courthouse with him. Bethís face was too mangled from her husbandís fists, and Jake himself was too wrapped up in his own emotional prison to notice the affairs of his son.

Boogieís tragedy is sidelined in our hearts by the Hekeís 13 old daughter, Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell). Intelligent and thoughtful, Grace is left to struggle against the unwanted attentions of one of her fatherís friends, while her parentsí attention is elsewhere.

The stage is now set for the story of the Hekeís to play out. How will it end? Does Jake get help? Does Beth leave her husband? What becomes of Boogie and Grace? Get this movie, and youíll find yourself mentally willing the Hekes on to better things, or at least an element of peace. Youíll get very involved in this film waiting to see if youíll be uplifted or devastated at the end.

One of the aspects that makes Once Were Warriors a powerful story is the performance of its actors. Every last one of them turn in unbelievable performances. Temuera Morrison as Jake is simply brilliant. The likes of Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, and George Clooney should be calling this bloke up for tips. For many New Zealanders, Morrison was known as a local soap star that played a likeable and mild-mannered doctor. His performance in Once Were Warriors is a role that many thought beyond him. Well, he gave the critics a bit of his Ďhowís your father?í Youíll find yourself waiting with painful anticipation to see his simmering temperament explode into an incredible rage.

(Trivia - Star Wars fans will see Morrison in Episode 2 as an ancestor of bounty hunter, Boba Fett)

Equally as engaging as an acting talent is Rena Owen as Jakeís missus. Owenís performance as the tormented Beth breaks our hearts. We canít help but be drawn into her anguish and her sense of hopelessness. Only the finest of actors could have accomplished this, and Owen has. Unfortunately, sheís not a glamorous waif, so Hollywood will no doubt shun her.

All the other aspects of filmmaking play their part in making Once Were Warriors the special movie that it is. From the attention to detail of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh to the unusual choice of soundtrack, Once Were Warriors is a shining, if somewhat harrowing, example of what cinema can and should be.

Thereís no sunshine and lollipops in Once Were Warriors. Itís not for the faint hearted, but it is for the big hearted.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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