The Dark HorseCultureCinemaMovie reviews
Countless films attempt to sell themselves these days on being “based on a true story”. The Dark Horse – a New Zealand drama directed by James Napier Robinson – doesn’t buck this trend, but does stand head and shoulders above many other movies making this bold statement just to sell tickets. It’s a film that takes the tag of authenticity and gives it justice. This is a story of hope, courage, passion, and good-will. And instead of exiting the screening with a sneer and shake of the head at yet another flaccid “inspiring mentor” story, the viewer will leave with the sensation of having been eyewitness to a remarkable tale. And that’s a nice feeling.
Cliff Curtis piles on the pounds to play the protagonist role of Genesis Ponti, a chess legend who suffers a mental breakdown, and is forced to enter a psychiatric evaluation institution. After finding shelter at his decidedly dodgy brother’s home, Ponti decides to take a group of unfledged youths under his wing, before they morph into some of the malevolent drones that prowl the streets. Curtis is fascinating in the role, convincingly portraying a man who’s lost his marbles, but still just wants to do good. Ponti attempts to provide these kids with opportunity the only way he knows how: through the game of chess.
The Dark Horse is not the first film to show how the sophistication of chess can turn a bad boy good, but it’s definitely the best. Cuba Gooding Junior achieved middling success with a similar role in Life of a King, but his character doesn’t have the captivating complexity of Ponti. The child actors and second-string cast all do their part too, putting in performances so compelling that they practically pull spectators into the screen, and onto the mean streets with them.
Perhaps where The Dark Horse succeeds the most is in its honesty. There are no for-the-sake-of-it soppy scenes, no typical tearjerkers that shamelessly encourage the audience to pull out their hankies. Nope. The Dark Horse feels like real life: tough, gritty, and tragic, yet kind of magical all at once.
The Dark Horse made a clean sweep of the New Zealand Film Awards last year and it’s easy to see why. It’s emotionally explosive enough to keep viewers locked in their seats in stunned silence, long after the credits have rolled. The “based on a true story” label has lost so much meaning in recent years, but if movies like this continue to be released, perhaps it might gain credibility again.
The Dark Horse is released nationwide on 3rd April 2015.
Watch the trailer for The Dark Horse here: