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Seville Pictures presents
Once Were Warriors (1994)

"You're still a slave Jake, to the fists, to the drink, to yourself."
- Beth Heke (Rena Owen)

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: March 28, 2002

Stars: Rena Owen. Temuera Morrison, Mamaengarda Kerr-Bell
Other Stars: Julian Arahanga, Taungaroa Emile, Rachel Morris Jr., Joseph Kairau, Cliff Curtis, Shannon Williams
Director: Lee Tamahori

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (contains graphic violence, language, and sexual situations)
Run Time: 01h:38m:19s
Release Date: September 01, 2001
UPC: 766483136963
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Jake and Beth Heke (Temuera Morrison, Rena Owen) are just another happily married couple enjoying the company of friends. After consuming a large amount of alcohol, they join together for an impromptu song that rouses everyone with its fun melody. The gang is smiling and having a good time, and life appears rosy for the attractive duo. Sadly, this moment is a rare exception to the normal way of life in the Heke household. Later that night, Beth opposes Jake's bossy nature and he deals her a brutal response. In one of the most startling depictions of domestic violence ever depicted on screen, the hulking monstrosity inflicts severe pain on his wife. Within the blink of an eye, an apparently harmless party has turned ugly, and this is not the first time.

Once Were Warriors presents the difficulties endured by the Maoris living in the rough urban lanscape of Auckland, New Zealand. The Aboriginal tribes once ruled this island, but now they are reduced to lower-class citizens in a hostile land. Many of them drown their sorrows in alcohol and fight their battles in pubs against local ruffians. Jake is one of these fellows, and he spends his days drinking the hours away with his simple-minded mates. They may mean well sometimes, but the troubles in their past are too much to handle in this city. Jake possesses likable qualities, but his short temper and unquenchable anger at his Maori past make healthy life impossible. While he beats up hoodlums and absorbs beers at the pub, his wife and five children fight their own battles without their father's support.

Each of the older Heke children deals with their depressing environment in a different fashion. Nig (Julian Arahonga) joins a roughneck gang known for extensive tattoos patterned similar to Maoris of the past. They require a violent initiation to become a member, but afterwards they back each other until the end. Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) falls in with the wrong crowd and faces charges for petty crimes like stealing cars. His troublemaking could pull him away from the home and into social services. The most optimistic family member is Grace (Memaengaraoa Ker-Bell)a cute, 13-year-old girl with a knack for storytelling. Although the events in the house trouble her, she keeps a positive attitude and cares for everyone. When things become too awry, she escapes to hang out with Toot (Shannon Williams)a friendly, homeless boy who lives in a car below the highway. Grace may avoid the chaos, but each day brings new difficulties that could even cause her serious damage.

Adapted from the novel by Alan Duff, Riwia Brown's screenplay injects plenty of reality into every scene. Beth does not always do the right thing, and Jake is not completely evil. Instead, they act naturally as complicated individuals who deal with their problems differently. During a family outing to visit Boogie at the government home, the family bonds over a picnic lunch and enjoyable car trip. A familiar tune plays over the radio, and Jake breaks into song with a joyous fervor rarely evident. Unfortunately, memories of his past return to haunt him, and the happy journey ends with anger and failure. Brown and director Lee Tamahori (The Edge, Along Came a Spider) masterfully paint each character and make every intricate nuance important in understanding the motivations.

Once Were Warriors succeeds due to the efforts of a top-notch cast, especially Owen and Morrison, who both deliver spellbinding performances. She has the pivotal role in the piece, and only her decisions will change the strife of the family. A former soap opera star in New Zealand, Morrison has appeared more recently in Hollywood films ranging from Speed 2 to Six Days, Seven Nights, but his roles are usually small. Jake dominates the screen while inspiring fear in his family and dealing pain to other brutes. In their calmer moments together, Owen and Morisson are entirely believable as a loving couple. These scenes reveal the passion that once existed before it was lost within the desolate city.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Once Were Warriors includes a dull 1.66:1 widescreen transfer that offers few sharp images. Much of the presentation contains a significant level of grain, especially in the night sequences. Also, a decent amount of specks and defects appear on the print fairly often. Even during the better moments, this transfer still lacks the clarity level of the better DVDs on the market. While some of the gloomier colors relate to the overall theme, this does not excuse this disc from having such a uninspired transfer. A few scenes convey sharpness, but they are rare and only reveal the drawbacks of the other images.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: This 2.0-channel Dolby Surround transfer presents the blaring soundtrack effectively and conveys the raw power of this picture. However, there is little complexity and depth within this simplistic track. At one point, a hissing noise takes over and dominates the rest of the audio within the scene for several minutes. While these sounds probably were intended for background within the run-down city, they muddle the sequence and detract from the film. Overall, this transfer provides an acceptable viewing experience, but it lacks any noteworthy moments that rise about a mediocre level.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring In the Mood For Love, Eye of the Beholder, Lost and Delirious
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery
Extras Review: Once Were Warriors offers a few supplements that contain insightful material, but the overall result is fairly unimpressive. A commentary track from director Lee Tamahori would have been a great addition and is sorely missed. Instead, the highlight is a 9-minute featurette composed mostly of recent interviews with stars Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison. Both speakers avoid the usual dull chatter and provide some valuable thoughts about their characters. Their discussion of the brutal violence is especially interesting as they explain its necessity in this picture. The final two minutes of this piece provide a montage of quick moments from the film over energetic music.

There's also a small cast-and-crew area section with entries for Owen, Morrison, and Tamahori. Each one includes a quick biography, a quote concerning the movie, and a selected filmography. The photo gallery contains 15 color pictures of shots from the production. These basic collections are usually not too exciting, and this section follows this pattern.

Finally, this disc presents the theatrical trailer in a full-frame, mediocre transfer. It highlights both the chaotic and enchanting moments and nicely showcases the story's allure. Full-frame previews for Eye of the Beholder and Lost and Delirious, as well as a widescreen trailer for In the Mood For Love, are also available.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Once Were Warriors contains acts of stunning violence that are not recommended for everyone. However, these scenes never appear overly gratuitous or unnecessary. Many of the worst elements occur offscreen, but the horror remains due to our strong bond with the characters. Because they seem human and real to us, the brutality strikes us much harder than in a overblown action film. While this release falls short in the visual and audio categories, the striking emotional resonance of the story definitely makes it a worthwhile purchase.


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