Genesis Potini creates a stir when he goes down the street. The hulking Maori doesn’t so much walk as lumber, and his jerky, out-of-rhythm body language frightens people who don’t know him, so that when Gen (his nickname) happens into a shop displaying a chess board and hurriedly begins rearranging the pieces while nervously muttering to himself, bystanders give him a wide berth. They’re afraid Genesis is going to fly off the handle and hurt someone.
But fellow Maoris in the town of Gisborne, New Zealand know that Gen is basically harmless. In and out of mental institutions since he was a boy, Gen (played by Cliff Curtis) finds himself homeless at the beginning of The Dark Horse, newly released from the hospital and following his instincts. Those instincts draw him to the home of his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi), a surly gang chieftain who barely tolerates Gen’s presence. Ariki’s teenage son Mana (James Rolleston) is in the process of being brutally initiated into the gang, but Gen spies something in the kid’s nature — something that tells him Mana will fit right in with his plan to start a youth community chess club.
And now it’s time for us to pause for a moment and reflect. How many times in movies have we seen a strong, caring individual take command of a classroom, a sports team, or in this case, a chess club, in order to provide self-respect, discipline, and the satisfaction of achievement to a group of disadvantaged young people? Answer: More times than we can count. And yet something about actor Curtis, and the pitiful-yet-imposing figure of Genesis, tells us that this story — written and directed by New Zealander James Napier Robertson — may be able to cast a different glow on the overly familiar plotline.
Versatile, all-purpose player of parts Curtis has created an assortment of ethnic roles in his movie career — Colombians, Arabs, Mexicans, Chechens, a caveman named Tic’Tic (in 10,000 BC) — usually as the villainous opposite number to someone like George Clooney or Denzel Washington. In the new religious-themed drama Risen, he portrays Jesus Christ. But some of his best-remembered parts have been as a New Zealand Maori (which he is), in such films as Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors, his best movie until now, as a conflicted man of violence for director Lee Tamahori. In The Dark Horse, Curtis gives us a new look entirely. It’s a serious, even solemn, tale of personal redemption as an alternative to the despair and victim mentality of people who believe they’ve been shuffled to the bottom of society. Are Maoris bright enough to play master-level chess? Of course they are. The game even analogizes into the Maori experience as a test of warrior strategy, which is one reason the club calls itself the Eastern Knights. But first, Gen must prove that he has what it takes to be a leader.
Curtis puts on a remarkable show as Gen — strong yet vulnerable, analytical yet childlike, brave yet unaccountably cowardly when it comes to staring down his violent brother and the gang members on behalf of his young test-case nephew. Maori actor Rolleston, who played the lead role his first time out in Taika Waititi’s youth-friendly Boy (2010), does a convincing job as Mana, bullied by his father and desperately searching for a way out of the life of home invasions and endless beer parties. The rest of the parts are mostly filled out by a typical cast of funny-faced kids who somehow manage to learn how to play championship chess in a few weeks with rock music blaring out of their ramshackle clubhouse. Their goal is to make a respectable showing at the big youth chess tournament in Auckland, against a roomful of freckle-faced white kids in private-school blazers, with parents who obviously disapprove of the boisterous camaraderie of the Eastern Knights.
But it’s Curtis’ Genesis that glues the movie together. In common with many other gentle-giant, powerful-pushover, rough-tough-creampuff persona, we keep expecting Gen to explode and tear somebody’s head off. In nearly every scene, he’s provoked enough to tempt St. Sylvester Stallone. Instead, he makes us wait. Maybe he was rehearsing for the Jesus job and was road-testing his heavenly humility. Or perhaps it’s just that Cliff Curtis is a character actor of exceptional range and skill.