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Savage

★★★★ - DOMINION POST 

- Heartfelt and engaging Kiwi gang movie is a stunning achievement - 

In late 1980s Wellington, Damage is the hugely feared sergeant at arms for the notorious Savages gang.

But gang leader Moses' grip on power is beginning to slip, as Moses maybe takes a little too much of the gang's ill-gotten revenue for himself, leaving the rest of the men and boys struggling to even keep the lights on.

It's a nice wee moment from writer/director Sam Kelly, making his feature debut here, after the international success of his short Lambs a few years back.

Gangs in cinema – and we're as guilty of this in Aotearoa as anywhere else in the world – are too often depicted as separate and “other” from society, rather than as an organic and inevitable consequence of the societies that they sprang from.

It's hard to imagine the preening and fetishised “Toa” who lurked in Once Were Warriors, all designer leather pants and gym-bunny muscles, ever bickering about whose turn it was to pay the power bill.

From the conflict and seeming inevitability of murder in the 1980s timeline, Kelly toggles us back to two other decades in the men's lives, as Damage, still Danny, is taken into a state run home after falling out with his brutish father in some rain-swept rural hell he’s calling home.

“State care” in New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s, we now know, was rife with corruption, incompetence and physical and sexual abuse of its vulnerable and voiceless young charges.

So much of New Zealand gang culture, for all the moral outrage and hand-wringing it provokes among populist politicians, can be traced directly back to the notorious “Boy's Homes” of the era, that were spectacularly successful at little except taking damaged kids and transforming them into lost, angry, embittered and volatile young men.

Savage gets this on-screen in a couple of economically assembled scenes, showing without lecturing, just how the system created all the real-life Dannies and Moses’, while allowing the terrific casting of Matthew Sunderland as Danny's tyrannical dad and Renee Lyons as his mum to set up an elegant and genuinely moving and effective final stanza to Danny's journey.

From the shadowy and cramped interiors of the state homes, Savage throws us forward a decade, to find the now-early 20s Danny and Moses discovering the power of having a patch and a crew to define your life on the streets. A turf war with a rival group, with Danny's own brother a member, leads to Danny's final embrace of the gang life, and sets him on the path that will lead to becoming the monstrous and tragic “Damage” in a few short years.

Kelly's writing of Savage, in the style of Moonlight I guess, does well to isolate just three brief periods in Danny's life and then excavate enough from them to compellingly and quite believably construct an arc of a young man's life.

Likewise the casting, with first-timer James Matamua and Olly Presling (Pete's Dragon) playing Danny as a young man and boy, while Australian Jake Ryan (Wolf Creek) is unrecognisable and basically perfect as the adult Damage. Next to Ryan, veteran John Tui (Hobbs and Shaw) is maybe even better as the arrogant and embattled Moses.

Savage is a tough and confrontational film. It's destined to be endlessly and pointlessly compared to Once Were Warriors. But for all that film's strengths, weaknesses and the superficial resemblances here,I found myself far more reminded of James Napier Robertson's brilliant The Dark Horse, which similarly got behind the masks of gang life and talked to the lost boys and mutilated men it found there.

Savage is, in its best moments, a stunning achievement. And it is never less than heartfelt and engaging. Very recommended.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

Savage is now playing at Light House Cinema!

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