My two previous experiences of New Zealand independent cinema, the excellent, hard-hitting, Once Were Warriors and the fun Hunt for the Wilderpeople, were ones I thoroughly enjoyed so when I saw the trailer for Sam Kelly's directorial debut, Savage, I had high hopes.
Savage explores the world of gangs in New Zealand; a country which has one of the highest numbers of gang members per capita in the world. Kelly's film charts the life of Danny AKA Damage (Jake Ryan ) over three decades; from being sent to borstal in the sixties as boy for stealing food to feed his poor family where he was brutalised physically and sexually by the masters; the co-founding of his gang, Savages, in the seventies with best friend Moses (Haanz Fa'avae-Jackson ); to the eighties where he is Moses' (now John Tui ) sergeant-at-arms and enforcer. However, Damage is starting to realise that years of gang life has left him with as he says "not even a toaster" to fleeting romantic interest Flo (Chelsie Preston Crayford ) and the pull of seeing his family again is testing his loyalty to the gang.
In an interview on TVNZ 1's Breakfast show, Kelly says his inspiration for the movie which took him seven years to write, was to examine the reasons why so many young people are drawn to gangs in New Zealand. If that was Kelly's only objective, then he achieves it as we see the various traumatic events that shape Danny into Damage, the vicious, volatile thug who dishes out brutal punishment to anyone that friend and president of the Savages gang, Moses, deems to need it.
The sixties and seventies extracts of Danny's life are engaging and compelling but when we reach the eighties to the hulking, tattoo riddled, Damage, the film which is building to a big crescendo as Moses's grip on the gang begins to weaken as Tug (Alex Raivaru ) challenges his leadership and Damage's heart and will to back his president is slowly evaporating, it sort of just peters out.
The viewer knows there will be a showdown eventually between Damage and Moses but there is very little time spent on driving or creating any wedge between the pair. There is a slight deterioration in relations but nothing that would suggest conflict. Instead Kelly emphasises Damage's need to see his family, specifically his mother, and his longing grows throughout the last quarter of the film.
And when we get to the confrontation between Moses and Damage, the momentum and interest which was perfectly built during the sixties and seventies sections of the film has been zapped, just like Damage's enthusiasm for gang life.
Savage no doubt was looking to bill itself as a depiction of brutal reality for some sections of New Zealand society just like the acclaimed Once Were Warriors had achieved back in the nineties and while Kelly laid the foundations perfectly, the ending was a damp squib.
Movie rating: 5.5/10