It’s not often that we talk about rugby here. That’s down to a number of reasons… the fact that it’s everywhere already, the fact that every NZ man, woman and their dog has an opinion on the All Blacks and they’re all free to share them, the fact that rugby opinion is done so well already, etc., etc., who cares, etc. But perhaps only once in a generation, nay… a lifetime, will there be a cultural moment so powerful and meaningful as The Kick. Just like Richie at the breakdown, sometimes rules simply need to be broken.
The film, screened on TV 1 on Sunday night, begins in Hong Kong as Stephen ‘Beaver’ Donald cops the blame for the All Blacks tight loss to Australia in what is played off as a national tragedy. I suppose it is, anytime the All Blacks lose. Why didn’t he kick the ball out? Why’d he miss that crucial kick? Well, it’s not like he was trying to, sometimes things just happen that way. Ah, but now the stakes have been set. We’ve established the lows that this man would fall to. The film of New Zealand rugby’s most unlikely redemption story has begun.
Flash back to his childhood. Donald is overlooked for the youth rep team as some blokes named Afoa, Kaino and Read pip him to the post (along with the coaches son, of course). This kid is an underdog. Next thing he’s playing backyard cricket like any good kiwi lad and then it’s off to the park to practise some goal kicking. “This one’s for the Super 10,” yells young Stevie D out in the grassy paddocks of Waiuku. Up goes the ball, spiralling higher and higher until it reaches an apex. The camera is almost staring straight up. And then it tips and it falls and here it comes and in a move Stanley Kubrick would be proud of (actually, it WAS his move… the bone toss scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey) it comes down in the hands of First XV Donald several years later. Yeah, this film is gonna be fun!
It has to be said, the casting in The Kick is impeccable. David de Lautour captures the shrugging yeah-nah-isms of Donald to an absolute tee, not to mention his trademark running and kicking style. Almost every star player gets cast and has at least one moment to do something that lets the audience say: HA! That’s Ali Williams! or Mils Muliaina! or whoever. Even if it’s just Israel Dagg at the guitar or Sonny Bill with an offload and an armful of tattoos. Granted, they didn’t all look like prime athletes (Jeeezus, Piri was fat!) but the vocal cadences, the roles they played in the team culture, the mannerisms and the little features that make them so recognisable were all there. If only all actors put this much effort into preparing for roles. Ma’a Nonu’s dreads needed a yellow streak or two, and his eyebrows were strangely unshorn, sure. Yet look at Graham Henry (Tim Gordon) with the kink in his eyebrows and that trademark gruffness… are we sure that’s not Ted himself with a little makeup and a filter lens!? He and his coaching staff especially were just perfectly cast. You’re never unaware that you’re watching a film, and the makers of The Kick are only too happy to play along.
This film is so full of those little nods and winks to the rugby loving audience that you’d have to be a blind horse to miss them. “I’ve got my eye on a kid from Papakura” “What’s his name?” “Kieran Read” “Never heard of him”. It’s caters pretty heavily to its audience but it’s so damn fun it gets away with it. Look, this film wasn’t made to win an Oscar, it was made to celebrate a moment and a culture within New Zealand deep in the knowledge that only people within that community are gonna watch it. This won’t be opening in theatres Stateside. So all the more for us.
The plot isn’t a massive priority. Instead The Kick kinda just jumps from memorable moment in NZ rugby to memorable moment in NZ rugby, usually with an exposition-filled scene around the BBQ (or the pizza oven) in between. Donald makes the ABs, Donald gets dropped. Donald meets this chick who doesn’t know who he is amidst the public outrage at his form. Then Donald does well for the Chiefs, he gets another All Blacks rental car… but he’s dropped for the 2007 World Cup (“I think you dodged a bullet there Beaver,” says a bubbly Richard Kahui, played by Clinton Randell. The bromance between ‘Kuks’ and ‘Beaver’ is really pushed to the fore. Good thing they’re likeable to pull it off). Oh man, I have to say though, if the quantity of alcohol consumed within this film is in anyway indicative of the habits of our top rugby players in real life, then the old school ways are still well ingrained. I hope they recycled all of those empties once shooting wrapped up.
We’re not just talking about a piece of fluff here either. The Kick does hit powerfully close to home in a few different ways. There’s the meaningfulness of rugby in our culture, which I’ll come back to, but a few other things not so uplifting get explored. Like the abuse he copped having played 15 minutes of mediocre rugby in a meaningless test in Hong Kong. The scene at the charity dinner was way too direct to be in any way realistic, but the scarfies in the crowd at the Highlanders game (“Hey Donald ya homo!”)? Yeah, I’ve heard stuff like that at sporting events all over the country, and even worse in internet forums and social media platforms. Next time you’re reading a sports article (or any kind for that matter), have a look at the comments and see how many are positive and how many are abusive. Imagine for a second the commenter actually saying those words to another human being. Imagine how that other person might react, how their family might react. Not everyone has the irascible Jimmy Cowan to back them up (using up 2/3 of the films primetime F-word quota in one swift tirade).
I have to mention the sports talk radio station here too. “Bazza”, the fictional host, is a perfect blend of all that is wrong with that medium. He’s hot and cold. All in or all out. At one time he’s bandying for Donald to get a black jersey, the next he’s calling him the worst to ever wear it. It’s Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB and Radio Live and everything in between in a nutshell. Stirring up drama and callers with personal attacks on athletes; inciting a culture of cynicism and negativity in order to sell ads. Even in a cameo role they managed to get just the right blend of ego and branding with that character. It was mostly played for comedy, but I found the comedic scenes were the ones that hit home the hardest. This isn’t Citizen Kane after all. The Kick works best when it isn’t taking itself too seriously (which is most of the time).
Apparently the scene with Stephen Donald giving a talk at a primary school having just gotten the call that he’d been dropped (man, those calls from Ted are rough) was a true story. “What’s the best thing about being an All Black?” asks one wide-eyed child. “The best thing about being an All Black is… being an All Black.” That speech drags on longer than it needs to, just to make sure we get the idea that it sucks to be Beaver at that moment. Sidebar: the greeting he gets from the class is eerily nostalgic. “Mo-re-na Ste-phen Do-nald!”… the monotonous drawl, the cultural inclusivity, the perfectly synchronised intonation… that brings back memories of a hundred boring school assemblies. There is a fair bit of fabrication in the film, with the love interest and obviously most of the scenes of All Blacks just hanging out, and other things get glossed over (the 2011 semi vs Aussie was a little harder than that!). That’s just how biopics work though. Nothing here gets in the way, none of it is glaring. Having said that, Mike Delaney probably isn’t too happy with his portrayal.
There is one thing that I really disliked. Actually, two. First, his best mate Dougie looks so much like a skinny Andrew Hore that I assumed for longer than I’m prepared to admit that he was in fact NZ’s premier seal hunting hooker (*giggle*). The real thing is a topic immune to criticism in real life: Richie McCaw. Not only did the actor look nothing like him, but the character wasn’t anything like how Super Mac comes off in real life. When he looked around Beaver’s place morosely, and Beaver asks him what’s wrong? I thought ‘here we go, another little nod to the audience’. “Oh, nothing mate. Just the ol’ foot giving me a few worries again. She’ll be right”. But no, instead it’s a condescendingly paternal ‘better clean up your act just in case’ line. Not a single mention of his foot. We know what’s coming, fellas. At that stage you really didn’t need to be foreshadowing. By the way, the best use of that little filmmaking tool (and there were a few) was a speech from Ian Foster to Donald where he told him: “They say it’s the jersey not the man. It’s not a jersey ‘til someone fills it up”. Nudge-nudge-wink-wink, Donald filled up his jersey plenty more than he’d hoped come 2011!
The absolute strength of the film though? The way they managed to intersperse real archival footage of games and re-enacted stuff with the actors. I’m not even kidding when I say at times it was legitimately hard to tell the difference. Even the commentary, which I assume was re-enacted, was dead on… which means I have to grudgingly applaud Justin Marshall for re-capturing that certain something that makes him so intolerable with mic in hand. I’m not quite sure how director Danny Mulheron pulled it off, but it think this may have been the most realistic portrayal of rugby on film that I’ve ever seen (I saw an American show the other week where they were throwing forward passes, and coming into rucks from offside positions… Nigel Owens would have a hernia!). It helped that they didn’t go overboard, mostly focussing on reactions and bench shots (the shots of the coaching trio in the booth were perfect! Like, completely accurate, 100% faultless). In the final they tried showing a few more actual plays (like Donald’s linebreak) and, yeah, you could see that the tackles weren’t committed, and the actors weren’t exactly in supreme condition. Eh, close enough.
When the titular kick eventually arrived, the soundtrack faded to complete silence. It was just like I remembered it. You don’t need me to tell you what happened next, I’ll just add that the whitebaiting myth was indeed done justice. Graham Henry even got his 4 pounds (although Piri ate them – a quick cameo for actor Troy Kingi as the half back hero, but a very good one all the same).
The ending could have been stronger but I loved the idea. Having set the scene with the fan shots and news items, anyone with an NZ passport was already taken back to that moment. 23 October 2011 - If you were in the country, you remember where you were and at that point in the film you’re filling in your own blanks. Like I said, this was made by kiwis and for kiwis alone. Rugby can mean so much to this country and few if any cinematic events have ever come close to capturing that. The Kick does a more than admirable job. The last few minutes of that final were unbearable. Nobody cared what the score was or how we played, so long as we could hold out until that final merciful whistle.
By this stage the story of Stephen Donald has been subsumed into a story of a greater national consciousness. His story is our story, a nation’s story. His fate our own. As the country watched entranced, stunned, frozen with nerves indescribable, 15 chosen men in black jerseys managed to keep a strangely shaped ball from crossing a particular white line. Their names were not important in the moment. They are scripture now. A whistle blows, a team a stadium a nation erupts. 24 years of pain vanishes into an instant of bliss. Beaver smiles and the credits roll.
We finally have our Invictus, and this time they got the ending right.