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Battle Scars

But if she can't make it on the street, her older brother, Nig (Julian Arahanga), can: he runs with a Maori gang. The violence of the Heke home is so savage that it's understandable how Nig could so easily endure the beating required for initiation into his gang. He's seduced by the gang members because they have elegantly tattooed faces, elaborate dreadlocks -- and rules. They may be car thieves and muggers, but they're predictable. To Nig, after life with his father, life in his gang's barbed wire-wrapped warehouse enclave is like a picnic.

Despite the air of violence that permeates Once Were Warriors, there are surprisingly few scenes of people being pummeled or stomped. The brutality is effective because of quality, not quantity. Director Tamahori doesn't deal in choreographed Hollywood fisticuffs. When someone's being pounded, we don't see clever special effects of pneumatic model cheekbones smashing. Tamahori has put something else on screen: real violence. When Jake and his mates fight, it's quick and dirty and destructive. And, as when people erupt in rage in real life, afterward it's hard to tell exactly what happened.

Jake's ever-present lurking rage is the truly disturbing element. Anything could set him off, at any time -- and the most unpleasant aspect of Warriors is that we can understand how Jake feels. On a car trip, Jake the good dad is leading the kids in a sing-along, but his eyes show an edge that says he's suffering, and he's looking for an excuse to make someone else suffer, too. Everyone in the car sings along, with merry voices, and all their eyes are dark seas of fear and sorrow. When livid and when seething, Morrison always reveals at least two sides of Jake's character -- both his naive sentiment and his evil.

Once Were Warriors is so relentless and so painfully realistic in its depiction of what social workers and the police call "domestic violence" that it's wrenching to watch. The director and cast never put a foot wrong. By emphasizing characters, by making this a story about people rather than a preachy diatribe about an issue, Tamahori has made Once Were Warriors a very serious work, and one so intense that not all the made-for-TV movies and talk shows in the world couldn't prepare you for it.

Once Were Warriors.
Directed by Lee Tamahori. With Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell and Julian Arahanga.

Rated R.
102 minutes.

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