Boers were the descendents of the Dutch settlers in South Africa. They arrived in the 18th Century, and, after over a hundred years of animosity between them and the British Empire, the Boers were eventually conquered in the final Boer War, a three year guerrilla conflict which cost the British dearly. Boer is the Dutch / Africaans word for farmer, which is what they essentially were, and yet they took up arms to defend their families. Their defeat came less from direct conflict, and more from the scorched earth policy that the British Empire enforced, which saw the Boer farms burned to the ground, and the women and children placed in concentration camps, where they died of disease and starvation. In one of the few examples of New Zealand sending troops to participate in any conflict, they (also under Imperial rule) dispatched soldiers to assist the British Army. And, after the war was over, many of the defeated Boers, understandably, no longer wanted to live in South Africa, and left to try and start afresh in faraway lands – some following the New Zealand soldiers back to their home country.
It’s 1903 and Arjan Van Diemen, a veteran guerrilla fighter from the Boer War, has just arrived in New Zealand. Greeted with animosity by the local British soldiers, he is rudely taken, at gunpoint, to see a Major Carlyle, one of the officers who is running the settlement – and who also happens to have a great deal of respect for Van Diemen’s infamous history as a fellow veteran of the war. Ostensibly left to his own devices, it’s not long before Van Diemen’s talents as a master tracker are called into use by the Major, who is hunting down a Maori seafarer accused of killing a British soldier. Promised a huge reward, Van Diemen sets out on the mission, choosing a different path to the regular tracker leading the British hunting party, and consequently finding the Maori sooner. But things are not as they seem – the Maori is innocent – and Van Diemen is forced to confront the memories of his tragic past, and decide whether to follow his obedience to the law or his own moral code.
The debut film from a New Zealand director called Ian Sharp, some might think Tracker is little more than a big travel ad for the admittedly stunning location. The story is familiar from every thriller where there’s a cop chasing a criminal who turns out to have been set up; only here the period setting obviously serves to mix things up dramatically. Certainly, for those interested in some of the less well-covered wars in (British) history – one which cost some £200 Million at the time, and numerous lives of course! – there is a great backdrop here, for the action to play out over.
The Boer viewpoint is suitably summed up by the lead character of Van Diemen – the details of the tragic loss of his family slowly ebbed out over the proceedings, and his self-learned skills as a tracker/hunter apparent throughout; the British side is split two-fold, between the grunts – who feel that they were ‘just doing their job’ and are still bitter over the guerrilla tactics of the Boers (cutting off the trigger-fingers of their opponents to prevent them from being able to fight) – and the officers, who not only have respect for their warrior opponents, but also have a certain amount of unspoken regret over the actions of the Empire as a whole. Of course then we have the view of the Maori, who also hates the British, ironically, for very similar reasons; the parallels between him and Van Diemen evident not only there, but also in the way that he is a master bush-craftsman too, able to escape and evade all but the best.
On reflection, the whole war seems to me to have been very regrettable and more than a little bit pointless. After all, the British Empire eventually went on to lose its grasp on pretty-much every one of its colonies; but, even at the time (the time when ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’) – even without 20:20 hindsight – we get to see here a fair amount of regret/bitterness forming on both sides through the depictions here. It doesn’t feel like a war anybody was particularly proud of. I’m not surprised either – after all, why were Westerners halfway round the world killing members of the local population and destroying their homeland? (Though not a lot has changed, has it?)
Ray Winstone is perfectly cast as the Boer veteran, Van Diemen (pronounced Demon by the way), bringing to it his usual gruff gravitas, and strong, passionate and moral conscience at the heart of things. It’s certainly great to see powerhouse Cockney take the lead again – he was pretty wasted in the unnecessary Scorsese remake, The Departed; and he was great filling in for Bobby De Niro opposite Gibson in the solid Edge of Darkness (and, more recently, playing a tough force to be reckoned with in London Boulevard), but these were still nothing more than great extended cameos. Here he even gets to broaden his range, if not specifically in terms of character development, then certainly in terms of pulling off a pretty damn convincing Africaaner accent. Even when in combat, fighting for his life; or shouting in his usual inimitable way, he never once drops into his natural accent – there’s not even a hint of it. I know he’s a good actor, but this was an impressive aspect of his performance. Unfortunately the story itself doesn’t draw quite as much out of him as you might have liked; the characters are marginally underdeveloped (or at least developed in all the predictable ways), leaving the actors with not quite as much as you would have liked to work with. It’s still more substantial than something like The Hunted, that long-buried, mismanaged John Frankenheimer thriller starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro as hunter/hunted, but that’s not really saying much, and, aside from a few clever moments (including the nice reprise of the “Do you feel lucky, punk?” dialogue from Dirty Harry), and some subtle touches towards the outset, this script doesn’t push Winstone’s talents to their limit by any means.
Opposite him we have Temuera Morrison as the Maori murder suspect who is on the run. Morrison is the obvious choice for the role – after all, how many Maori actors can you think of off the top of your head? – but he’s not on fantastic form here. Where is the guy from the powerful Once Were Warriors? What we appear to be left with here is little more than the same phoned-in performance as he pulled off for the disappointing Star Wars prequels when playing fan-favourite Jango Fett. His stilted delivery of some of the lines, and terrible battle cries (both when he raises the rock midway through, and also towards the end when he goes into chant mode - nothing wrong with the Haka, but Morrison's rendition borders on the camp) do nothing for the credibility of the character, simply taking you out of the movie every time one of these odd events take place. It’s a shame, because his character would have offered a stronger counterpoint to Winstone’s heavyweight central role had we had a better performance. Morrison also feels a little old for the role. Where Winstone is perfect as the gruff, ‘retired’ veteran, and even pulls off some nice action moments (the punching combo reminds you that he was once a decent boxer), Morrison similarly feels like he should be a retired tracker – rather than a man on the run. But, as said, he’s the obvious choice for any ‘Maori’ role, it’s just a shame the crew didn’t look a bit further afield.
The supporting actors all flesh out their side characters as much as they need to – again the movie doesn’t demand much from them, but thankfully none of them really fall into the expected trap of caricature, instead conveying all of the ‘proper’ British attitude and arrogance in equal measure (it's interesting because many of them - including the Major himself - are actually New Zealanders).
If there’s one thing (other than Jango’s performance), which struck me whilst watching this movie, it was how overbearing the score was. The narrative, and its messages about war and the consequences of it, is already quite in-your-face; all the usual beats taking place over the duration – but the score takes things too far. This is one of those scores which pre-empts every event that takes place in the movie. You could practically watch it without looking at the screen, and know exactly what’s taking place: oh, this is a sorrowful, reflective moment; oh, here’s some action; oh, here’s a comedy moment etc. I’m not talking about the kind of careful matching of scenes-to-score that the likes of Ennio Morricone commit to works like Once Upon a Time in America and Once Upon a Time in the West, this is blunt force trauma here, are really quite intrusive. An alternative, more subtle and subdued score would have made all the difference, in my opinion – not least for the moments of marginal levity, where the scenes would have played out considerably better without the farcical Pink Panther-style tones in the background telling you that the scene is funny. (Hell, you have to wonder whether they even needed the funnier moments at all - they could have perhaps been used to show the utter madness of war, and of the way people were being treated under colonial rule, but, even if that was the intention, the terrible scoring during these moments goes some way towards undermining this.)
All in all, Tracker is a solid but, ultimately, quite limited thriller, in all respects. It’s far from a bad film, especially considering it’s a debut effort from the director, but it also has more potential going for it than is ever fully realised. Taking things to another level, the characters could have been more atypical, the story less predictable, and the outcome more shocking. The characters, in particular, are drawn in broad, colourful strokes which only appear to scratch the surface of some very interesting individuals – these are two sides to the same coin, but this is no ‘Heat’, and, with a better director and stronger script, perhaps it could have been.
As is, there are plenty of twists and turns, which will no doubt keep you guessing, but there’s nothing at the end of it that leaves you reflecting on the messages within the movie, or on the horror of war and what those left behind have to deal with. Instead, you just get a nice, neatly-packaged resolution, that leaves you feeling that this is a good, but far from exceptional film. Kudos to Winstone for picking and playing a relatively unusual character, and for avoiding not only his trademark accent, but also his trademark thuggery. But aside from him, and the beautiful New Zealand locations, there’s nothing striking about this production – it’s undeniably solid work, just not quite as good as it could have been. Still, knowing that; knowing it’s a decent, independent production with a relatively small budget (used well) and a relatively small scope, you’ll likely enjoy this movie a fair bit.
“You know, when I travel, I always keep an empty chamber in case of accidents.”
“Truth is I’m not really sure. I’ve been careless these past few days. Of course, we won’t know until you pull that trigger.”