Producers: William Watson, Bill Trotter and Brian Kelly Director: Sam Kelly Screenplay: Sam Kelly Cast: Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Alex Raivaru, Olly Presling, James Matamua, Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson, Lotima Pome’e, Poroaki McDonald, Jack Parker, Seth Flynn, Eden Flynn and Dominic Ona-Ariki Distributor: Quiver Distribution
The setting is unfamiliar but the plot fairly predictable in Sam Kelly’s tale of the enforcer of a street gang in Wellington, New Zealand. Danny, called Damage in his gang role (Jake Ryan), is, as we’re shown in the opening set in 1989, a pretty brutal fellow, but he’s reconsidering the life he’s chosen.
Or, more accurately, fallen into. The film is divided into three segments. In the chronologically earliest, in 1965, Danny is the nine-year old son of an abusive father who terrifies the entire family, including Danny’s brother Liam (Eden Flynn), whenever something happens to upset him. So when Danny (played by Olly Presling) gets into trouble, he winds up in a juvenile home where the wardens brutalize their charges and even an apparently sympathetic official proves to have unsavory motives.
But while there he makes friends with Moses (Lotima Pome’e), a rebellious Maori boy, and they support one another as they grow into their teens. In the second section, set seven years later, Moses (now played by Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson) is forming the gang known as the Savages, and while many of its members are Maori, some are not—among them Danny (now played by James Matamua), who serves as a trusted lieutenant.
It’s a position that causes him some stress, because the Savages are rivals of another gang in which his brother Liam (Jack Parker) is a member. His decision about where his loyalty lies—which culminates in a bloody turf battle—is a test of which family he belongs to.
Moving ahead to 1989, Damage’s ties to Moses (now played by John Tui) are strained not only by his involvement with a woman, Flo (Chelsie Preston Crayford), and a challenge to Moses’ authority over the gang from Tug (Alex Raivaru), but by the harsh treatment meted out to Red (Poroaki McDonald), a young recruit who is having second thoughts about joining the gang—again, largely because of a girl. The question of true family loyalty leads Damage to another encounter with Liam (now Seth Flynn) and, it seems, a change of life.
“Savage” is marked by a feeling of grim authenticity, not only in the visuals (the production design is by Chris Elliott, the cinematography by James L. Brown) but the visceral intensity of the fight action. The performances convey genuineness as well, with Ryan and Tui both fearsome and their younger incarnations all well played. Presling and Pome’e, on the one hand, and Matamua and Fa’avae-Jackson, on the other, register the powerful bond Danny and Moses forge over the years. Though they are some females in the cast, this is a very masculine story, and the raft of extras playing gang members certainly look the part. Peter Roberts’ editing makes the chronological shifts less clumsy than then might have been, while Ari Liberman’s score completes an impressive package.
“Savage” is, in fact, a compelling portrait of a Wellington street gang, marred however by the decision to embrace a redemptive dramatic arc that comes across as forced compared to the ultra-realistic backdrop.