Taking viewers into the gritty, violent world of New Zealand’s street gang culture, Savage (the feature film debut from writer-director Sam Kelly) chronicles the life of face-tattooed gangster Danny – or “Damage” (Jake Ryan) – and his friendship with contested gang president Moses (John Tui). Inspired by the country’s real-life history of gang culture, powerful performances from Ryan and Tui (alongside their younger counterparts) effortlessly carry the weight of this feature on their massive shoulders, enabling the film to shine in surprising ways. Despite Savage’s strong foundation, however, it stumbles in areas it shouldn’t.
Beginning in 1989, we meet an adult and grizzled Danny brutally punishing a fellow gang member for theft before having a drink with Moses and heading out to a party. It’s an effective opening that establishes everything we need to know about the camaraderie and violence that’s been the constant basis of these men’s lives. But when Danny encounters a woman who inquires about his striking tattoos at the party, he starts to reflect on the life events that have led him to this point.
We jump back to Danny’s troubled boyhood in 1965 and his early days as a sergeant in the newly founded Savages in 1972. These sections are easily the highlights of the flick. Full of character, the flashbacks provide a colourful and genuinely touching character study of how a boy from a broken home can become a ruthless gangster with intimidating tattoos. Although we never actually witness the moment when he gets his tattoos, which would have symbolically marked Danny’s transformation to Damage, we do get many genuinely heartfelt moments between young Danny and Moses. One wordless scene in which the boys lie on the floor listening to music is especially captivating.
When the flashbacks eventually do catch up with the adult Danny, the brakes are slammed on. Jumping back into the fractured state of the gang, it feels like the script has nowhere else to go until a tender final reunion that the plot has been building towards, and instead it switches its focus to a minor subplot far less interesting than what we’ve just seen.
Despite a lull towards the final stretch, Savage is a surprisingly thoughtful and emotional story of brotherhood and outcasts, with a lot more substance than you’d ever expect from a film about bikers.
Savage is released in select cinemas on 11th September 2020.
Watch the trailer for Savage here: