Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Legend of Baron To'a: Film Review

The Legend of Baron To'a: Film Review

Cast: Uli Latukefu, John Tui, Nathaniel Lees, Shavaughn Ruakere, Jay Laga'aia
Director: Kiel McNaughton

Ambition on a budget meets a degree of heart and family legacy in director Kiel McNaughton's debut.

It's the story of Latukefu's Fritz, an Aussie-based businessman who needs to sell the old family home in New Zealand to finance a deal back home. Landing in his old cul-de-sac, he finds some things have changed since the days when his wrestling father, Baron To'a, ruled the roost.
The Legend of Baron To'a: Film Review

But when a local gang makes off with his dad's prize wrestling belt, Fritz's uncle refuses to sell the home until it's returned - sending Fritz on a collision course with his own personal and troubled history.

The Legend of Baron To'a starts with two of the actors (Latukefu and Tui) apologising to the Tongan King for what they're about to see, but exalting him that they wanted to show a true to life story.

In truth, the cul-de-sac where the story takes place could be anywhere where bad apples have set in and the rot's begun, and where family and community have been torn apart by crime and deliquency.

On that front, McNaughton and his writing team have seized on a vein of veracity that's got plenty to be mined for dramatic effect.

Yet in parts, The Legend of Baron To'a lacks some of the dramatic KO that it's clearly going for - largely in part due to the writing of Latukefu's Fritz. Prone to going all Beautiful Mind and writing on windows, Fritz is a hard character to really care about, despite the Robbie Magasiva-like Latukefu's best acting intentions. And certainly when the chips are down, there's more a sense that he was entitled to what was coming, rather than favouring this underdog.
The Legend of Baron To'a: Film Review

A cartoon-like element underpins some of the brutal beatdowns, with not one ounce of blood spilled throughout, despite some of the violence on show - it's moments like this that take the film out of the reality and grittiness it aspires to.

And yet, in its flaws, this genial pic packs in heart when it needs to - particularly with moments of Tui's To'a, a legend in his own cul-de-sac. Glimpsed in flashbacks and in old videos of wrestling, it's clear there's a legacy here, and Tui makes the absolute most of the limited screentime.

Equally, Laga'aia's subtle and simple portrait of the long-time dweller offering advice to the newcomer is a stellar performance, one doused in subtlety. Laga'aia lifts some of The Legend of Baron To'a's shortcomings when it truly counts. Billed as a comedy, the laughs are, to be frank, in short shrift, and The Legend of Baron To'a is more a family dramedy than anything else.

With fight scenes that resemble UK's World of Sport Wrestling TV series, McNaughton makes great fist of the small spaces to bring the action alive, clearly channeling Tongan Ninja and Kung Fu Hustle.

Overall, while The Legend of Baron To'a may lack a few killer KO moves throughout and would have benefited from a tighter script, it does proffer a solid night out for NZ cinemagoers.

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