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It’s a whole new brawl game in Damage

Director Sam Kelly trawled New Zealand for would-be actors with 'scars, tattoos and criminal records' to star in this enthralling portrayal of violent gangs

10 September, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Jake Ryan as Kiwi street gang ‘sergeant’ Damage in Savage

SAVAGE
Directed by Sam Kelly
Certificate: 18
☆☆☆☆

THE life and times of a street gang “sergeant”, who brutally calls the shots and carries the responsibility of dishing out routine violence, is at the centre of this extraordinary Kiwi tale.

We meet Damage (Jake Ryan) as he skulks around the scrapyard headquarters of his gang known as the Savages. Swilling beer while grunting conversations is the order of the day: but beneath a veneer of macho brotherhood, politics are stirring.

When Damage takes action against a member who has failed to collect protection money, a schism erupts in the tight-knit group. Lifelong friend Moses (John Tui) tells Damage he has to show he is the meanest – or be deposed by a new king of the pride, which would mean death for both of them.

Damage, however, is beginning to question his time as the sergeant of the gang, and cannot stomach the idea of further violence to confirm his place when it is inevitable at some point he will be replaced.

We are then taken back in time, to his childhood in a large family with a violent father. Caught stealing food, he is sent to a borstal – and it is here he is subjected to systematic, institutionised abuse that leads him to becoming a criminal as a teenager – and sends him into the hands of a gang.

Director Sam Kelly has set himself a tough task – telling the story of characters across three age ranges, and making it believable to the viewer. He has done it exceptionally well.

He has also sourced a brilliant cast to carry the story through. He trawled New Zealand to put together a group who are not professional actors but have lived the life he is trying to portray – and it comes off. He asked for anyone with “scars, tattoos and criminal records” to come forward – and had 6,000 replies. It is hardly surprising, then, he has managed to create a sense of authenticity.

Kelly considers how violence begets violence, though there is not the time to ask why Damage’s father has become such an evil, violent patriarch. It also considers substitute family bonds, how humans need a sense of belonging in a group to help them confirm themselves as individuals. As Hunter S Thompson revealed in his landmark piece of Gonzo journalism about the Hells Angels, the sense of belonging provided by outlaw motorcycle groups is so strong that only death can truly break it.

It stands alongside the Alan Duff 1994 film Once Were Warriors, which shone a light on issues of gangs, poverty, alcoholism and abuse in New Zealand, and feels like a natural bedfellow. Both consider an abusive macho culture that turns all into victims – even the perpetrators.

While Once Were Warriors focused on a urban family with a Maori background, and looked at the dislocation between contemporary and traditional life, Savage’s gang is drawn from a multitude of ethnicities: while in New Zealand, biker gangs and Hells Angels chapters had a strong Maori slant, Kelly’s research shows today’s chapters are not based solely on ethnic background, but on economic and class-based circumstances.

By doing so, he manages to avoid gangster clichés and has created an insightful, nervous, and enthralling piece of original film.

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