Classic Review – Once Were Warriors (1994)

Title – Once Were Warriors (1994) 

Director – Lee Tamahori (The Edge)

Cast – Temuera Morrison, Rena Owen, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Cliff Curtis 

Plot – Of Maori descent, New Zealand family the Heke’s, lead by alcoholic and violent Jake (Morrison) and the loving but trapped Beth (Owen) struggle to stay on track in the face of poor decisions and society’s expectations on their lives.  

“I was right…too much weights, not enough speedwork”

Review by Eddie on 02/12/2021

New Zealand’s most renowned and equally as infamous film Once Were Warriors is a movie filled to the brim with raw emotion and power and despite it being close to 30 years old, Lee Tamahori’s searing Maori centered drama has lost none of its impact as we follow the Heke family through a series of life changing events that will have deep and long lasting impacts on their lives moving forward. 

A career defining project for all involved, with director Lee Tamahori going on to direct Hollywood efforts like The Edge, Along Came a Spider and Die Another Day in the wake of this critical and commercial hit, while the films leading actors Temuera Morrison (a role in which had many comparing the rising actor to a young Marlon Brando), Rena Owen and supporting star Cliff Curtis all built their careers off this event, Warriors is a case of right time and place as Tamahori brought author Allan Duff’s famed novel to the big screen. 

Turning the novels focus from mainly around Morrison’s violent, charismatic and tormented alcoholic brawler Jake “The Muss” Heke (don’s mess with the jukebox when Jake is around!) to a more fully formed family tale that finds its heart and soul in Rena Owen’s long-suffering and trapped wife/mother Beth and her wise teenage daughter Grace (played with heart and verve by Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), Warriors in many ways touches on familiar family and racial drama narratives but its New Zealand background, grounding in Maori culture and history and the films fiercely drawn characters make this a unique and often confronting experience. 

Fuelled by some of the most in your face depictions of domestic abuse/violence you’re likely to see in a film, as Beth comes face to face with her husband of many years, one who turns from duet singing larrikin to alcohol inspired monster within minutes, Warriors pushes the boundaries of what you can take as a viewer but in doing so Tamahori and his cast ensure that Warriors packs a mighty gut punch when it comes to eliciting emotional responses from its audience; all due to its unflinching honesty and heartfelt performances. 

When it comes to singling out performances one could never look past the work of Morrison and Owen who etched themselves into New Zealand film folklore with their performances here, with both actors delivering incendiary turns as both a broken man and a battered woman. Each role is equally as hard to bring too life with the heart and soul needed from a performer but both leads are unforgettable as a couple bound together by love but torn too pieces by a constant barrage of misdemeanours that affect not only themselves but their children too. 

Final Say – 

A powerfully performed and uncompromising New Zealand drama, Once Were Warriors deserves its place at the top of the Kiwi film list as it explores and examines a deep seeded issue in the stunning island lands that continues to be prevalent to this day.  

4 1/2 cooking requests out of 5 

One response to “Classic Review – Once Were Warriors (1994)

  1. I don’t remember well the details of the story as I’ve seen it probably only once (first in cinema and then maybe the second time when it came to VHS), but I do remember how it made me feel and how impressed/shaken I was after seeing it. Perhaps the other film that came close to eliciting those raw emotions from my teenage heart was Breaking the Waves (1996). I need to watch this again!

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