The Legend of Baron To’a
Director: Kiel McNaughton
Department of Post / Madman Films
The Legend of Baron To’a isn’t great – but it’s charming in its way. It’s so easy to sit back and watch it happen; to be amused in part, to cringe in that way that we do with some of the more overtly Kiwi humour, to wince at some of the laziness in the writing. But there’s a seed of an idea here. Some genuine heart too.
Baron To’a was a great – and famous – wrestler. His son Fritz has returned from being a Sydney-based big-shot to sell the house and get the family’s affairs in order. To’a is dead but his legend looms large. His brother, Otto, won’t let go of the house, his brother’s legacy and the championship belt.
Fritz is so sure that this will all resolve itself so quickly that he doesn’t even pack a bag for what is meant to be a fleeting trip. Yet somehow he continues to find clothes that fit – with no explanation at all. It’s that sort of lazy writing that suggests a bloody good script edit might have plugged some holes.
The bigger issue is that as Fritz, Uli Latukefu, a beefed up substitute for Robbie Magasiva, is completely unlikeable – a charisma-less void playing a dickhead of a character. It’s hard to buy in. He spouts cod-philosophy and self-help wisdom, he writes on windows – which is fucking silly and annoying and not even a parody of A Beautiful Mind but it should be. And then there are his really annoying mountain-ego traits…
The veteran Nathaniel Lees is a warmer, kinder presence as Uncle Otto. John Tui is superb as To’a (who appears in flashback and dream-like sequences) and an almost unrecognisable (at first) Jay Laga’aia is superb as the neighbourhood watch, George. It’s almost as much of a surprise star turn as when Tem Morrison fisted-up for Jake “The Muss” Heke a quarter-century ago.
Quite where The Legend of Baron goes awry is anyone’s guess. But it does. There are too many silly moments – filmic non-sequiturs. But I laughed a lot and I was trying my best to be on its side.
I like the idea that a community of New Zealanders might have their own version of a Marvel movie; their own heroes on the screen. Anti-heroes too of course.
The neighbourhood gang steals the championship belt – so you see what’s going to happen next. You spot it as quickly as the plot-holes and conveniently ignorant dead-spots start to pile up.
But in the end I could and couldn’t laugh at the unintentional brilliance of finished product marrying up with its narrative driver. The Legend of Baron To’a is tonally all over the place, it features pantomime, cartoonish violence that is all at once absurd and dramatically over the top – almost socially irresponsible. It is glaringly underwritten and overacted, it’s both painfully silly in places and yet it makes you smile. Yes, it is woefully juvenile – but that’s part of its big dumb fun, a stupid strength if you like. So, in the end, it’s a film that is almost exactly like pro-wrestling. Is that meta-fluke or just meta-phoar?
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