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Once Were Warriors (1994) Blu Ray (Second Sight)

The violent disintegration of a family

This brutal drama focuses on a Maori family in Auckland, New Zealand. Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison), the father of the family, is a violent alcoholic who terrorises both the patrons of the local bar and his family, in particular, his wife Beth (Rena Owen), with whom he has regular arguments. The uncomfortable home atmosphere has a clear detrimental impact on their offspring. The tattoo-covered eldest son Nig (Julian Arahanga) spends little time with them, preferring instead to roll with a local gang. Eldest daughter Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) attempts to cope with the situation by practicing her writing skills and confiding in her best friend Toot (Shannon Williams) who lives in the shell of an abandoned car. Second son Boogie (Taungaroa Emile), meanwhile, is a delinquent who regularly gets in trouble with the police.

When the latter son falls afoul of the law again Beth promises to accompany him to his court hearing. The night before, however, Jake brutally beats her up during a house party with a number of their friends, resulting in her being unable to keep her appointment. The judge decides that she is unfit to take care of her son and puts him into the custody of a social worker named Bennett (George Henare).

As the family disintegrates further so does the tragedy. However, there is also a beacon of hope which can be glimpsed via a return to traditional customs.

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A hard-hitting debut

Once Were Warriors was the debut feature for once-promising New Zealand-born director Lee Tamahori. Hollywood came calling and he graduated onto expensive, major studio productions with remarkable ease. However, in an ironic twist, these big-budget efforts soon resulted in him being dismissed as an uber-hack in the Renny Harlin mould. After all, his dubious “greatest claim to fame” since his well-received first film was landing a gig directing Die Another Day (2002) which has come to be regarded by many as being the worst James Bond of all time. I’m not sure if he ever was a particularly great director; his style on Once Were Warriors has a distinct made-for-TV feel in its shot framings, albeit with just enough of a blend of grit and slickness to make it all feel professionally competent.

However, the film gains its impact via the powerhouse performances of a mostly Maori cast. It’s a film which can truly be defined by the term “hard-hitting”, both literally and metaphorically. When Jake subjects the long-suffering Beth to a horrific beating in front of a number of their mutual friends, intercut with shots of their children huddling together in terror in the bedroom upstairs it’s a truly difficult moment to stomach. What makes it so effective, however, isn’t so much the scene itself as interactions between stars Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison throughout. During their happier moments together they have a believable chemistry and Morrison just enough of an edge of charm to make it all too believable that she would stay with him despite the fact that he’s such an appalling thug. On the flip side, during the angrier moments, Morrison is a singularly terrifying presence, the deep wells of rage contorting his face in a truly demonic manner.

Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison in Once Were Warriors

While the film never casts Jake in any kind of sympathetic light (and rightly so) we never lose the impression that he’s a human being deep down. He’s ultimately shown as someone who does care for his family but is unable to muster the kind of emotional control necessary to be able to deal with them in a positive manner. There’s also an underlying view on how modern society both absorbs and marginalises ethnic groups, causing them to turn their back on the very culture that once defined them. They subsequently get locked into a cycle of poverty, hopelessness and crime from which solace is found via copious drinking - with the resulting inevitable human casualties.

A ray of light

What sounds like an unremittingly grim venture is, however, given a cathartic and spiritual twist near the end which places some kind of light at the end of the tunnel for Beth and her children. What could have been a cheesy attempt to tack on a forced, feel-good ending is, however, tempered by the considerable toll of damage taken along the way. Sad to say, it is the one family member who is the most fundamentally decent-natured and who seemingly possesses the brightest future ahead of them who suffers what is the most harrowing fate of all. The fact that the overall ending of the film isn’t as unremittingly bleak as it might have been is one borne out of the clear-headed realisation that the characters have about the horrors they have been through rather than via any artificially forced cinematic devices.

If Once Were Warriors isn’t quite a perfect film the blame probably falls at the door of director Tamahori. While he works well within his own limitations he tends to (like the Jake character) hit you over the head again and again rather than going for a more subtle approach. However, the overall air of unpleasant truth in its portrait of a fundamentally broken family dynamic makes it a hard film to shake.

Runtime: 102 mins

Dir: Lee Tamahori

Script: Riwia Brown, from a novel by Alan Duff

Starring: Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Julian Arahanga, Taungaroa Emile, Rachael Morris Jr., Cliff Curtis, Joseph Kairau, George Henare, Shannon Williams

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The picture looks very sharp, while the sound is powerful and impactful.


Once Were Warriors - Where Are They Now?

Julian Arahanga (who played Nig and went on to become a documentary filmmaker) catches up with the on-screen family to organise a reunion. Thankfully, there is a lot more evident warmth and amicability between the actors here than was apparent in their performances in the film.

The rest of the doc consists of a series of revealing and entertaining interviews with the cast and director. Prior to this film, Temuera Morrison was best known for playing an innocuous doctor character from a New Zealand soap opera. He was cast due to his all-important charm and then built up by rigorous training that included entering the boxing ring. He confesses that it was difficult for him to find the anger necessary to portray his character effectively. Rena Owen, meanwhile, was a former junkie who decided to take a shot at acting.

Director Tamahori also addresses the concerns that some people in New Zealand held towards the film at the time due to it potentially reinforcing negative stereotypes against Maori people. However, the positive critical reception subsequently vindicated it.

Directing the Warriors - An Interview with Lee Tamahori

A decent half-hour interview with the film’s director, albeit marred by some distracting bird chirping away in the background. He talks about his struggles in getting a film based around Maori people getting made by the New Zealand Film Commission, his directorial approach, filmmaking on a low budget and the various demographics that the film connected with. Women felt more comfortable opening up about domestic abuse in the country while men, paradoxically, expressed discomfort at what they had seen. Tamahori found that they saw a version of themselves in the character of Jake - something which frightened them.

Interestingly, the director also reveals that the book took place from Jake’s narrative viewpoint with the women functioning as secondary characters. He took a different approach as he felt it would work better on film. He also mentions that he refused to direct the 1999 sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? due to the fact that he felt that the central character of Jake was beyond redemption and thus he wasn’t interested in following up on his story.


Once Were Warriors isn’t a comfortable watch but it is a memorable one thanks to its excellent performances and forthright manner in tackling the subject of domestic abuse. The two extra docs are lengthy and rewarding.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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