“Savage” sums up a gang member’s life in three key episodes, pivotal moments where young Liam might have had a choice in the way his life turned out. The catch to that is, he had a lot fewer choices than we’d like to think.
The film’s novelty is its New Zealand setting and the biker gang that our hero (Aussie actor Jake Ryan) helped found, the “Savages,” is a Maori-Anglo mob. The tattoos, haka chants and the bonding of warriors are borrowed from Maori culture — they even ID their hometown as “Poneke,” the Maori slang for “Port Nichols,” aka Wellington, on their “colors” (jackets) or as they call them, “patches” — and their profanity-laced language donated by the Brits.
It’s a brutal blur of a movie, rendering its themes and actions in broad, violent strokes. That’s a help, as they mumbled accents are a bloody jumble to get through without subtitles.
We meet gang “Sergeant” (enforcer) “Damage” in 1989, bonded for life with his best friend and chief, Moses (John Tui), his faced covered in tattoos, including “Poneke.”
“Why d’you wear that mask?” gang moll/female gang leader/pimp (not sure) Flo (Chelsie Preston Crayford) wants to know.
“So you can see who I am.”
Damage and Moses maintain their gang through intimidation, protection money and recruitment. Young Red (Poroaki Merritt-McDonald) is their latest “prospect” (initiate).
But with Damage reaching what amounts to dotage in biker gang years, he’s half-heartedly wondering how much longer he’ll be able to manage the violence, physically or morally.
Real tough guys don’t need guns.
We see young Danny, as the future “Damage” was known, back in 1965, rugby roughhousing with his brother, stealing from the corner grocer’s, too hard for his homophobic hardcase Dad and indulgent Mum to handle. He is torn from brother Liam and sent to a brutal reform school where he is anything but reformed.
That’s where he meets Moses.
And we drop in on 1972 teen Danny and Moses (James Matamua and Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson), who have graduated from petty theft and into car thievery and the like. There’s violent potential in them. All it takes is a moment at the train station when they see the denim-clad thugs from a gang stomp through the crowd of civilians, intimidated as if they’re being menaced by the Yakuza.
The charismatic Moses comes up with a name and the denim vests for his five mates. “Savages” they’ll be henceforth. The shifting loyalties of brothers are dramatically tested in the 1972 segment. Danny’s brother Liam (Jack William Parker), left behind at home, has joined a rival gang. Sooner or later that will have to be worked out.
Ryan and Tui have kicked around Down Under films and TV for a couple of decades, with the occasional minor role in a Hollywood film as well. The conjure up riveting presences at the heart of “Savage,” magnetic characters who don’t give much away but still draw us in.
I was intrigued by Damage’s “trigger word” since childhood — a homosexual slur — and where writer-director Sam Kelly might go with that in his debut feature.
The dense accents make this a film that washes over you and makes sense thanks to the familiar tropes it builds on and scenes — some of them quite violent — which require no verbal explanation.
After all, what’s the point of calling yourself “Savage” if you’ve listened to Mommy’s plea that you “use your words” to settle anything?
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson, Jack William Parker, Eden Flynn and James Matamua
Credits: Scripted and directed by Sam Kelly. A Quiver release.
Running time: 1:40