Once Were Warriors Blu-ray Review

A chilling portrayal of domestic abuse in the slums of New Zealand

Perhaps the most critically acclaimed New Zealand movie of all time, Once Were Warriors adapts Alan Duff’s hard-hitting novel. Director Lee Tamahori paints a harrowing picture of domestic violence in the tenement slums of Auckland. Depicting how the native Maori people have struggled to adapt in modern New Zealand, Once Were Warriors throws a gritty spotlight on the consequences of colonialism. It is powerfully visceral filmmaking with unforgettable performances.

Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison) lives with his family in a tenement house for native Maori. Despite his love for them, Jake’s battle with alcoholism frequently results in terrifying bursts of anger in front of his children and others. His reckless temper leads to merciless beatings of his wife Beth (Rena Owen). After Jake loses his job and goes on welfare, each member of their family is forced to face their own inner demons. The challenges faced by all Maori in modern society exacts a heavy toll that leads to an inevitably bleak outcome for the family.

What makes Once Were Warriors so heartbreaking is its jaw-dropping social realism. The abuse faced by Beth and her daughter are shown with shocking clarity. Jake and Beth have several children in their dysfunctional household, from Grace their daughter to a juvenile delinquent son. The thirteen-year-old Grace loves jotting down stories in her notebook and is the sensitive member of the family. She has to bear some of the responsibilities that Beth herself ignores.

Once Were Warriors is assured storytelling delivered with a savage edge.


The gripping, heartfelt drama paints a harsh portrait of Jake. Jake is an abusive husband to his wife. His priorities in life are getting drunk and hanging out with his friends, mostly men with the same priorities. He’s a powerfully built man, known around town as “Jake the Mus” for his imposing physique. Jake is a wrecking ball on the people around him. One key moment has him beating a man senseless for changing the song on the jukebox.

Beth and Grace are the moral center of Once Were Warriors. They quietly suffer as the brutish Jake bulls his way through life. This is really a film about the struggles faced by Maori women in the slums of New Zealand and their place in this society. Beth does her best to shield her children from Jake’s wrath, ending up battered when Jake loses control. Things go from bad to worse when the violence and disorder spill over onto their children. No one is left untouched from the consequences of this violence and rage.

A socially relevant film that succinctly captures the changing conditions faced by the Maori in modern New Zealand, Once Were Warriors is assured storytelling delivered with a savage edge. Films like this often come off as preachy sermons. Once Were Warriors honestly reflects the tragic drama of a broken family in brutal terms, setting it apart. Speaking to the soul of New Zealand, it’s unforgettable.

Once Were Warriors Blu-ray screen shot 10

Video

Specialty label Film Movement Classics secures fine-looking elements for this new HD transfer. The 1994 New Zealand has been issued all over the world in a variety of different transfers. Film Movement offers the film in an appropriate 1.78:1 widescreen presentation at 1080P resolution. The 102-minute main feature is encoded in high-bitrate AVC averaging over 30 Mbps. This is a decent presentation with adequate definition and solid clarity.

The transfer is from relatively clean film elements that haven’t been processed to remove grain and detail. Solid black levels help the slightly muted contrast levels. This isn’t a new film scan bursting with ultra high-frequency content. It appears to be from a fine telecine job struck in the recent past. Stable colors and excellent saturation add some pop in exteriors.

Once Were Warriors looks excellent on Blu-ray with appreciable texture in solidly film-like video. The low-budget film has consistent cinematography with a darker palette. While it lacks the immediate impact of videophile picture quality, it’s a serviceable HD transfer.

Audio

An English-language 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack renders intelligible dialogue in a decent surround mix. Yes, they speak English in New Zealand. A nicely extended dynamic range is heard in perfect fidelity, delivering an array of modern New Zealand tunes across the front soundstage. The surround channels are largely focused on adding ambiance in the city. This is a solid, competent modern surround mix that isn’t flashy but helps the movie. The original 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack mixed for home video is included as a secondary option.

Optional English SDH subtitles display in a white font.

Extras

A behind-the-scenes featurette from the original DVD version and a new essay are the included special features. Mildly disappointing is the loss of an audio commentary by director Lee Tamahori, found on the New Line DVD version.

Booklet – Film critic Peter Calder of the New Zealand Herald writes a new essay detailing the film’s impact and what it represents for New Zealand.

Behind The Scenes (11:42 in SD) – An older featurette with on-set footage and cast interviews. Director Tamahori and screenwriter Brown give their take on the movie, providing context for their goals in making the film. Several cast members give brief interviews between clips.

Original Theatrical Trailer (02:08 in SD)

Film Movement Trailer (00:49 in HD) – A promo for the label.

Various Film Movement TrailersKamikaze ’89 (1:34), Violent Cop (1:22), The Quiet Earth (1:00), Antonia’s Line (1:48), The Pillow Book (1:34), Francesco (1:50)

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not influenced DoBlu’s editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Click on the images below for full-resolution 1080P screenshots taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered during the process. Patreon supporters are able to access these screens early, view them as .pngs, and gain access to exclusives.