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‘Savage’ review: New Zealand street gang tale of growing up and finding identity

From boy to man.

Savage explores a side of New Zealand that is usually not seen in cinema. For many, the island country is often depicted as a lush locale fit for globe trotting adventures and magic. Movies like the fantastic Hunt for the Wilderpeople have added an element of realism, but one of the main takeaways tends to be how unbelievably beautiful the country is.

Writer-director Sam Kelly takes an even deeper dive in his directorial debut. The movie looks at the seedier element of New Zealand while also exploring the life of Danny (Jake Ryan). Savage looks at three pivotal moments in his life that helped form him from a boy to the ruthless enforcer of a street gang.

Flashbacks can be tricky to pull off in movies. Done correctly, they can add insight to both characters and story. When done poorly, the scenes can be confusing and leave audiences questioning what is happening and why. Savage manages to move back and forth between the three times well for the most part. There are some moments that break the movie’s flow, but nothing that will ruin anyone’s enjoyment.

Kelly’s film was inspired by real life stories and it shows. Savage is a visceral movie that draws in anyone watching from its earliest moments. It is frightening, uncomfortable, and at times, heartwarming. The movie’s strength comes from its realism. This attention to reality also includes a profanity heavy dialogue that even the most experienced sailor will wince at.

While the movie is based on true stories, that does not prevent it from feeling like many other cinematic crime dramas. Savage is certainly not a knock off, but it does not have anything new to say either. There are questions of where Danny’s loyalties lie, regret over the life he has chosen, and lots of violence.

'Savage' review: New Zealand street gang tale of growing up and finding identity

Savage is able to get away with it due to its sheer emotion. There is nothing wrong with treading familiar ground if the audience is brought into the story. That is definitely the case here. The film is filled with strong performances and some surprisingly effective musical sequences. This is a story that refuses to let its viewers turn away.

A movie about the life of street gangs does not seem like anything new – even if it is set in picturesque New Zealand. While Savage does not bring anything new to the table with its plot, there is a richness in the storytelling. Great performances and a gripping tale make this a cut above similar films.

Savage comes out January 29

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