Directed by: Kiel McNaughton. Starring: Uli Latukefu, Nathanial Lees, Jay Laga’aia. Runtime: 1h 43 min. Released: This film had its North American Premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on September 2, 2020.
In Kiel McNaughton’s directorial debut, The Legend of Baron To’a, he creates a larger-than-life world on a small cul-de-sac in New Zealand, where the biggest idol of the neighborhood is a legendary wrestler called Baron To’a (John Tui). Years after the wrestler’s death, his grown son Fritz (Uli Latukefu) returns home in an attempt to sell his old home, where his uncle Otto (Nathanial Lees) still resides.
Tension arises when neighborhood hoodlums steal a championship belt from the home. In the film, the neighborhood truly believes in sharing but I think that’s the only part of the premise that I couldn’t fully buy into. I can buy into sharing, like sharing lawnmowers, but there’s a gang on this cul-de-sac called the Pig Hunters who cause tension and they think they’re allowed to steal the belt and just flaunt it around. They don’t get caught because the local cop, Wayne (Xavier Horan), is a total knob and that conflict is annoying; but there’s an audacity of the main villain Tahu (Ray Liufau) wearing the belt in front of Fritz and thinking it’s okay.
Maybe I’m being too Canadian, but it’s strange. The antagonists just feel entitled to everything and I couldn’t get that. The only conclusion I can come to is that Tahu feels welcome to the belt because everyone in this neighborhood, and not only Fritz, worshiped Baron To’a, and Tahu thinks the belt belongs to the community. It doesn’t make it right, though. It just seems like a lack of respect for a culture that holds respect highly. About the culture of the film, the film weaves in between English and the Tongan language with ease and it’s very cool seeing a film with a core Polynesian cast.
Other than that conflict, I was totally able to buy into this film. I was expecting a more traditional wrestling film, but the film is really driven by that inciting incident of the belt being stolen and Fritz needing to get it back. Everything is rooted in wrestling with Baron To’a and the flashbacks about him, and it’s also brilliant how it incorporates the ideas of hero and villain arcs like in the WWE and the storyline here really feels like something that would culminate with a championship match.
It’s usually quirky comedy as we just get a sense of the neighborhood and how the neighborhood isn’t as great as it once was. We learn that Baron To’a really was the glue of the community. Now, though, there’s a new mediator on the neighborhood called George (Jay Laga’aia) who tries to keep the peace and he is immediately likable.
It’s really a story about Fritz coming back home and rediscovering his roots and finding himself again, and it’s quite lovely. It’s simplistic but there are some great scenes where the emotional beats hit, and most of the quirky comedy hits, too. The comedy’s created by situations and amusing dialogue, and screenwriter John Agall is able to switch between them with ease.
The character of Fritz is generally compelling, even if he’s abrasive and judgmental from the start. He starts to open up to his neighbors – especially Renee (Shavaughn Ruakere) and daughter Lacey (Jaya Rees) who gets a couple laughs – and there’s a slight bond with one of the local hoodlums Royden (Duane Evans Jr.) that’s nice.
There’s a beautiful aspect, too, with Fritz still coming to terms with his father’s death. “Some aren’t born to grow old,” says his Uncle Otto. It’s a nice sentiment as Baron To’a’s spirit is still felt throughout the neighbourhood, even though the peace in the neighbourhood has been thrown out of whack. Fritz’ neighbour Renee says the place is a sh*thole and lacks good character, but she stays because it needs good character.
This a story with a ton of heart that mixes its comedy with lovely drama, and while it’s a bit slower paced than I expected in the beginning, it’s entertaining throughout. There’s a little bit of action sprinkled throughout, just an appetizer for what comes by the end of the film. The Legend of Baron To’a makes the wait worth it as it brings all the action you expect in one helluva finale.
It’s really The Raid: Redemption on a small New Zealand cul-de-sac as Fritz makes a move for the championship belt. It’s surprisingly brutal but the fights all feel different, as the fight choreography and stunt work are both outstanding as it mixes martial arts and classic wrestling moves. It’s all on the street, though, and that’s what makes it a less traditional wrestling film as it’s thrilling enough that Fritz never has to step foot in a ring. I don’t know if all New Zealand actioners are like this one, but I’m anxiously waiting Kiel McNaughton’s next one.