CAST: Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Olly Presling, Tui Rererangi Aitken, Seth Flynn, Dominic Ona-Ariki, Erroll Shand, James Matamua, Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson, Olly Presling, Lotima Pome’e, Jack William Parker, Eden Flynn, Alex Raivaru, Italiyah Wilson, Poroaki Merritt-McDonald
RUNNING TIME: 101 mins
BASICALLY…: Across 30 years, Danny (Ryan) grows from a boy to the violent enforcer of a New Zealand street gang…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
From the first few moments of Sam Kelly’s debut feature Savage, with gruesome hammer torture and more C-bombs than a Tourette’s convention, you kind of know what you’re in store for – and from then on, it continues being exactly the sort of movie you’re expecting.
A sombre, brutal and sometimes unforgiving gangster drama, all set within the harsh community of New Zealand street gangs, the film more or less gives you what you want out of a movie like this, sometimes to a powerful degree, though don’t expect this to eclipse Goodfellas or the Godfather trilogy in the realm of gangster crime epics any time soon.
The film is spread across a few decades, beginning in the mid-60s when young Danny (Olly Presling) is sent to a borstal for stealing food, where he meets fellow young offender Moses (Lotima Pome’e). Later on, as teens, Danny (James Matamua) and Moses (Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson) form their own street gang, the Savages, with Danny slowly but surely becoming a violent addition to their pack. Finally, in the late 80s, an adult Danny (Jake Ryan) – now going by “Damage” with his gang allegiance etched all across his face – is a feared enforcer for the Savages who is starting to become disillusioned with his gangster life, putting him at odds with Moses (John Tui) who himself is seeing his leadership questioned.
This is probably going to be a shorter review than most, because there isn’t a whole lot to say about this movie. That isn’t to say that it’s downright terrible or even that bad, because it’s really not; it’s just one of those films that serves its purpose well, and doesn’t really do much else outside of that. It’s well-made, with director Kelly mining some intense moments out of some really uncomfortable imagery – during the childhood scenes, there are one or two moments where you’re wincing from the inappropriateness of certain figures’ actions – and it’s also well-acted, particularly from Jake Ryan who delivers a tremendously fierce but also vulnerable performance as the adult protagonist. Critically speaking, it’s a fine movie.
Yet, at the same time, it’s also an unremarkable one. The character’s central journey from wide-eyed young boy to fiercely violent criminal, to then wanting an out from his gangster lifestyle, is one that you’ve seen a lot before, and though Kelly tries hard to give the movie a nasty edge with violence and verbal abuse behind every corner, he can’t quite distinguish the air of familiarity surrounding it. Again, though, it’s not like it’s done badly or anything, but it isn’t done in an especially fresh or even that interesting way, and mostly you’re sitting there watching a film that’s by most accounts okay, but also unlikely to stay in your head for an extended amount of time.
It’s a film that is what it is, a coming-of-age gangster tale that half-Moonlight, half-Sons of Anarchy, although those properties had far more interesting things to talk about than Savage does. When its main achievement, for me anyway, was that it inspired me to do one of the shortest reviews I’ve done yet for this website, that’s a telling sign that it’s a film that really isn’t worth talking about all that much.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Savage is a by-the-numbers coming-of-age gangster film which, while certainly well-made by debut filmmaker Sam Kelly and well-acted by a talented cast, doesn’t offer a lot of fresh material and instead settles into being just another one of these movies, which you’ll probably forget about not long afterwards.