Review: ‘The Dark Horse’ Starring Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Wayne Hapi

In The Dark Horse, New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis returns to his home country for one of the best acted afterschool specials in years!  When The Dark Horse premiered first in New Zealand, it racked up numerous awards including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film, and many other accolades.  Now it’s time for us here and The States to get a taste of the film's greatness.

Curtis has had quite an international presence over the past few years starring in many roles in film and television.  Recently he’s been on TV’s Fear the Walking Dead on AMC.  For this film, he gets a chance to go back to his home country for a career-defining role in this incredibly executed film, The Dark Horse.  The film is based on real-life of chess phenomenon Genesis Potini as he not only deals with his own mental illness but his undying yearning for giving back to his community and his own family by helping underprivileged kids learn chess to compete in the national championships.

The film focuses primarily on Curtis’ character Genesis who is released from a mental hospital where he’s been treated for bipolar disorder.  Upon his release, he has to remain in the care of his estranged brother Ariki, played remarkably by Wayne Hapi.  Ariki is a member of a New Zealand gang (think a New Zealand version of the Sons of Anarchy).  While the two keep their distance from each other, they but heads over the direction of Ariki’s son Mana, played by James Rolleston.  Ariki wants his son to join the gang, but Genesis thinks his nephew could be destined for so much greater.  And what he means by greater, he could be a chess champion.

Potini also wants to give back to the community when he gets out of the asylum and does so my volunteering at a local chess club for underprivileged kids.  Potini himself is a speed chess genius, but he just happened to snap when he was younger.  Now he dedicates much of his time to helping a rag-tag group of kids learn the game of chess because he believes with his tutelage, they could go to the national championship.  Potini inspires the kids to try and learn the game as best they can and they never lose faith in themselves.

The Dark Horse is superbly acted.  Cliff Curtis dropped the hammer down in this role.  Not only did he completely nail many scenes where he displayed Potini’s mental instability, but he also went through a unique transformation for the role.  The normally buffed actor really let himself go gaining more than 60 pounds to have the same obese body frame of the real life Potini.  The supporting cast is also exceptional.  There is a very heavy scene where Curtis and Hapi give their all during an argument, and you could hear a pin drop in the movie theater.  Although this film is based on real events, it does have a very clichéd feeling of overcoming adversity that has been seen in a dozen other films.  What sets the film apart from other films that weren’t successful is the acting by everyone involved in the film.  Even the biker gang performers have great acting moments.

The film does take a little bit of time to set up, it drags a little in the beginning.  Once we come accustomed to the characters it becomes a really engaging film.  Although the third act feels like you’ve seen the story done before, it hasn’t been as well executed like this in a long time.  Director/writer James Napier Robertson did a bang up job on this film.  It’s easy to see why it was so beloved overseas and should do well here in The States.

Rating: 4 out of 5