ANOMALY20 REVIEW: The Legend of Baron To’a [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 103 minutes
    Release Date: February 20th, 2020 (New Zealand) / December 4th, 2020 (US)
    Studio: Madman Films / Gravitas Ventures
    Director(s): Kiel McNaughton
    Writer(s): John Argall / John Argall & Owen Black (story)

Welcome to the ‘sac.

More than just a wrestling hero for young Polynesians the world over, Baron To’a (John Tui) was a bona fide hero in his neighborhood. He always had time for the kids. He made sure the streets were clean. And he wasn’t afraid to take off a sandal to hit someone risking the community’s wellbeing over the head … sometimes after beating them senseless first. Did Baron want to fight? No. He sought peace through words. It was only when they failed that he was left no choice but to let fists fly. Why? Because professional wrestling isn’t real. Baron was an entertainer putting smiles on children’s faces. Any actual violence inflicted to keep neighbors safe was therefore about education. He wasn’t a violent man. He merely taught respect.

That was his legacy and what made The Legend of Baron To’a such an indelible memory decades after his untimely demise. And it’s also what his son Fritz (Uli Latukefu) has actively tried to escape. It’s why he quit training with his uncle (Nathaniel Lees‘ Otto) to hit the books and hone his brain instead—something Baron’s work to provide opportunity and security to the cul de sac he called home helped facilitate. The wrestler would have been proud of that choice and the effort Fritz put into becoming successful in Australia. The boy’s error was the belief that his decision had to be either/or. To hear Baron speak via flashbacks is to realize the philosophical apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Mind and heart aren’t enemies.

Director Kiel McNaughton and screenwriter John Argall are giving Fritz the opportunity to recognize this fact for himself by forcing an unwitting return home. The goal is to finally get Otto to sign real estate paperwork and sell the house he and Baron shared. Fly in, fly out, and never have to think about everything he lost the day his father died again. But that result also means forgetting the good. Because it’s only by being back that he recalls his friendship with Carey (Fasitua Amosa) and the joy of everyone living under Baron’s wings. And now that a criminal element has infiltrated the street to fill the big man’s void, no kids will ever have that chance. They’ll be scooped up young, used, abused, and spit out.

The script is thus built upon a familiar conflict: individualism versus community. Fritz doesn’t want to care about the people who live there now. Not the local peacekeeper (Jay Laga’aia‘s George) that inevitably facilitates violence by diffusing its aftermath rather than its root cause. Not Otto’s neighbor Renee (Shavaughn Ruakere) and her struggles as a single mother while being harassed by a corrupt stalker of a police officer (Xavier Horan‘s Wayne). Not the troubled youth like Royden (Duane Evans Jr.) with nowhere to turn but the Pig Hunters gang despite knowing he’s just like Fritz was at that age—a teen striving for more. Fritz will need to start caring, though, once his father’s championship belt is stolen and Otto declares his signature contingent on its safe return.

Can he win the ensuing fight? The odds are long on paper considering it’s one man opposite a crew of muscle-bound adversaries. It’s even tough to imagine the great Baron To’a beating them—although his sustained presence would have made certain things never got this bad. So more than just a cocky attempt to take back an heirloom before subsequently leaving everything else behind, this war is about Fritz reclaiming a way of life. And until he comprehends those stakes, he’ll never be ready. Until he acknowledges that this battle isn’t for personal gain but the reinstatement of hope, he’ll be left in the street with cracked ribs and a concussion. So he’ll need Renee and Royden to remind him what this place might become again.

So expect ample drama with the action. Fritz is a big man who needs to learn a lesson before teaching one on this tough road towards clarity. The Legend of Baron To’a is also pretty funny, though. Whether it’s a long chase through backyards with Fritz constantly falling down or the memories of Baron calmly putting out fires without an ounce of ego, the physicality has been choreographed for laughs. But so has the dialogue. Horan’s Wayne epitomizes the poser sensibilities of a coward pretending to be tough and the back-and-forth between Latukefu’s calculating pragmatism and Lees’ intentional sass when figuring out next steps provides a great philosophical divide rooted in relatable juxtapositions. Fritz thinks smarts will be enough, but Otto knows every title fight demands heart too.

Latukefu is up for the challenge either way. He let’s Fritz make fun of himself when caught up in a thought experiment scrawled on a window with dry-erase markers as well as embrace an ethos of compassion inherited from Baron if the other party is willing to pause a beat and commune. These heart-to-hearts are always two-fold too as the conversations work to open the eyes of those he’s confronting and his own. It’s Royden providing a mirror onto his past and Renee exposing the possibilities of his future that prove Fritz’s journey is as much about the mission in front of him as it is self-actualizing an identity that melds memory and dream together. It’s about compromise rather than brute force. It’s about listening rather than explaining.

courtesy of the Fantasia International Film Festival

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