'Savage': Film Review | Busan 2019

Busan International Film Festival
'Sons of Anarchy' on foot and way, way down under.

Emerging actors Jake Ryan and John Tui headline Sam Kelly’s debut feature, set in the world of New Zealand street gangs.

New Zealand is, quite bafflingly, viewed as some kind of magical wonderland, covered in lush greenery and populated by happy hobbits. In reality, New Zealand is like any other developed nation, populated by rich and poor, advantaged and underprivileged, the mainstream and outcasts. Writer-director Sam Kelly pulls the cover off New Zealand’s gang culture in his first feature film, Savage. One part examination of a criminal subculture and one part dissection of masculinity and how it’s defined, the pic is going to draw immediate comparisons to the former FX series Sons of Anarchy — which would be inaccurate as well as entirely unfair.

Savage will also recall Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors for the social tapestry of a marginalized group it weaves. Shifting back and forth among three watershed moments in the protagonist’s life, Kelly draws an emotional roadmap detailing one man’s life and how he got from A to B. Savage is primed for a long festival run, and English-language territories should take an interest in its fresh perspective.

Savage begins in 1989 with patched-in gang member Danny (Australian actor Jake Ryan), also known as “Damage,” punishing a mate for a theft. It’s a brutal introduction to his brutal life, and it continues later that same evening when he reports back to the club president, Moses (John Tui, Solo: A Star Wars Story). Moses is clinging to power — rival Tug (the charismatic Alex Raivaru) is nipping at his heels — but there’s always time for some drinks and some women. It’s during a clumsy encounter with a well-heeled, sexually confident woman that Danny explains that his facial tattoos, his mask, are there so that she can see who he really is. It’s an ironic statement, and one that prompts Danny to recall his life to this point.

In too many circumstances, flashbacks can be clunky, intrusive asides that take viewers out of a film, but in Savage they actually have a hand in crafting a richer portrait of how a boy transforms from 9-year-old Danny, son of a devoutly Christian and abusive farmer, to juvenile convict in 1965 to Damage, sergeant in the burgeoning Savages gang in 1972.

Kelly’s script was inspired by real street-gang history, and the world of Savage couldn’t be farther from the trendy, postcard-ready cafe culture of Wellington (where the film was shot) if it tried. Kelly and director of photography James L. Brown capture the casual violence and still uneasy white-Maori coexistence with a raw, unfiltered, dark tone that lends the pic a veracity it might not enjoy with cleaner images. Not surprisingly, Danny looks most out of his element in the bright light of day.

But Kelly wisely makes Danny and Moses’ friendship and their growth (or not) the real story, and Ryan and Tui’s completely believable, naturalistic dynamic serves as the movie’s emotional anchor. Savage’s strongest moments involve the two just having a beer and talking about their shared pasts and possible futures, revealing a great deal more about both men than any gang fight does.

It also makes a reconnection between Danny and his brother Liam (Seth Flynn) all the more gutting when Danny begins to struggle with the lure of a lost family and freedom from gang life versus loyalty to his oldest friend, someone who provided a haven when he needed one. It becomes obvious that Danny’s tattoos are actually just a public face for a more sensitive man who might, on the third go, make a radically different choice.

Production company: Domino Films
Cast: Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Alex Raivaru, Olly Presling, James Matamua, Haanz Fa’avae Jackson, Lotina Pome’e, Poroaki McDonald, Jack Parker, Seth Flynn, Dominic Ona-Ariki
Director-screenwriter: Sam Kelly
Producer: Vicky Pope
Executive producers: William Watson, Bill Trotter, Brian Kelly
Director of photography: James L. Brown
Production designer: Chris Elliott
Costume designer: Bob Buck
Editor: Peter Roberts
Music: Arli Liberman
Casting: Yvette Reid, Miranda Rivers
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales:
Film Constellation

100 minutes