The Last Saint: Impressive, brutal
We're used to seeing Antipodean soap stars making it big as Hollywood actors, or branching out into local indie films - but you might not expect to see a Shortland Street-er, beloved since he debuted as paramedic Sam Aleni in those heady first season days of 1992, moving behind the camera to direct a brutal, drug-laced crime story set in Auckland's Polynesian gangland.
Rene Naufahu has written and directed a searing local thriller which dunks us into a world not before shown on New Zealand screens: The turf war between Samoan and Tongan drug dealers and the realities of P-addiction that we (hopefully) only read about in the news.
Five years in the making, this self-described "rebel" film adopted the famous Kiwi No 8 wire approach, self-funding and ploughing on without industry support, but what makes The Last Saint so special is not its self-sufficiency but its slick, novel and excitingly-executed story.
Minka (a terrific Beulah Koale in his first leading role) is a good lad, dedicated to keeping his mum off the methamphetamine and keeping his head down through life.
When he is taken under the paternal wing of Joe (another ex-Shorty star, Calvin Tuteao), Minka's stance against sex, drugs and violence is sorely tested as he is introduced to the seedy night-life of strip clubs, brothels and bars.
The film's myriad joys include sterling performances from Joseph Naufahu as a hilarious dealer with his own P-issues and a penchant for head-clanging techno music, and (hoorah!) a couple of well-acted female roles in Minka's mum (Joy Vaele) and Sophia Huybens as the feisty Zoe, who delivers dry lines with an exact measurement of post-teen cynicism.
Reminiscent in style and content of the superlative Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, The Last Saint may be male-centric but at least some of the women get to do more than dance around a pole.
There are also familiar faces from TV who are allowed to work against type (you'll take that Energy Spot advice a lot more seriously from now on).
As a backdrop, Auckland's central city has never looked more grown-up nor more beautiful - his first time at the photographic reins of a feature film amply demonstrates cinematographer Grant McKinnon's tireless work on over 15 years of local productions.
A scene around the fountain in Albert Park is as captivating for the atmospheric lens flares as for its well-written dialogue.
Even the cliched environment of the "titty bar" exhibits camerawork that excites you about the dramatic action rather than the eye-candy.
The Animal Kingdom comparison also extends to Naufahu's excellent set-list of a soundtrack.
Local audiences will delight as oldies and goodies from bygone years are spun on Minka's turntable, with a touching rendition of The Holidaymakers' hit Sweet Lovers in one of the film's momentarily optimistic moments.
Then there's the irony of a brutal beating delivered to the soothing sounds of Ardijah.
While an innocent Pasifika boy fighting dark forces may not seem an entirely original premise, the urban setting and eye-popping insights into the less honourable side of Polynesian pride does feel fresh.
And although this crime drama follows a well-trodden narrative path, it does so with panache and several unexpected belly laughs.
Among The Last Saint's many strengths are its energy, its unrelenting, in-your-face (and eardrums) brutality and its endearing central performances.
This is impressive genre fare, well-executed and intoxicating.
The Last Saint (R16) 110 mins
Sunday Star Times