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Pathos among the punches: The Legend of Baron To’a reviewed

 

THE LEGEND OF BARON TO’A
directed by Kiel McNaughton

A homage to the great days of wrestling is violent but beautifully shot and sounds thumpingly good.

Having decamped to Australia as a young man, leaving his upbringing in a tough Auckland suburb behind, corporate strategist Fritz (played by Tongan-Australian actor Uli Latukefu) finds himself drawn back into his old neighbourhood’s woes when he returns to seal a business deal. The reluctant prodigal son is soon embroiled in a feud involving local gang the “Pig Hunters”, his stoic Uncle Otto (a terrific Nathaniel Lees), an argument over a lawnmower and the search for a stolen family heirloom – a wrestling title belt of his late dad, “Baron To’a”.

This Pacific-flavoured action-comedy is an intensely physical flick, chock-full of exciting chases through backyards and wince-inducing fight scenes. Less hardy viewers may find it too violent and insufficiently funny, and it’s true that for most of the movie Baron To’a delivers more of a well-acted if violent drama than a slapstick comedy in the spirit of Three Wise Cousins or Take Home Pay.

It’s the first feature directed by Kiel McNaughton, a former Shortland Street star who cut his teeth behind the camera with the likes of Auckland Daze and the mockumentary Find Me a Māori Bride. He was also a producer of the acclaimed, female-powered dramas Waru and Vai – so his Pacific Island sensibilities are strong, and his affection for urban Polynesian communities is evident here. Kids roam the cul de sac with sirens blaring from their bikes, while a corrupt cop (Xavier Horan) throws his weight around and harasses local solo mum Renee (Shavaughn Ruakere).

It feels a bit fuddy-duddy to criticise the violence in a film that is explicitly a homage to the great days of wrestling. Undoubtedly some members of the Tongan community will be uncomfortable with this portrayal whereas others may rightly argue that any representation is important. It’s nonetheless a hugely entertaining film that particularly younger audiences will take to.

It’s beautifully shot, with a soundtrack as thumping as the action. It’s also a delight to see familiar faces such as Jay Laga’aia and national treasure John Tui in key roles, bringing moments of pathos among the punches, to this touching, if bone-crunching, story of whānau and the importance of legacy.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: Madman Films

This article was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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