By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

The violence in Once Were Warriors (Fine Line, R), a tumultuous domestic drama from New Zealand, erupts with terrifying suddenness. It seems to be happening everywhere you look — in a rowdy, warehouse-size bar, where the sight of a bully smashing heads on the floor is greeted as a raffish diversion, or at a youth gang’s squalid meeting ground, where the new members undergo a sadomasochistic initiation ritual of being kicked and punched. Most cataclysmically, violence happens in the cramped, dingy home of the Hekes, a Maori family living under the shadow of its hard-souled patriarch, the monstrous charmer Jake (Temuera Morrison), a man capable of wooing his wife, Beth (Rena Owen), with verbal caresses one moment and beating her to a pulp the next. Set in a tumbledown Maori ghetto of contemporary New Zealand, Once Were Warriors induces a dizzying state of moral shock. At first, we’re stunned by the savagery of what we’re seeing; then we begin to anticipate it. What continues to grip us, though, is the vision of a macho-mystical, urban-tribal subculture — a culture in which physical aggression is so omnipresent, so woven into the texture of daily experience, that it’s practically the prime expression of human bonding.

Adapted from a novel by Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors was directed by Lee Tamahori, a veteran of New Zealand TV commercials, and in scene after scene you can feel him turning up the movie’s blowtorch intensity. Tamahori has a visually propulsive melodramatic style — think shantytown Mad Max — that invites the kind of moralistic hand-wringing Oliver Stone films do; even those who respond may dismiss his ferocious technique as essentially manipulative. Yet, like Stone’s work, Once Were Warriors holds something haunting within its visceral grip. The film unveils a spiritually displaced society of roughneck warriors, tattooed rebels who have no more wars to fight but are still living by their senses, by long-encoded rituals of pain and transcendence. (Perhaps their one remaining claim to nobility is that they haven’t yet substituted guns for fists.)

Jake and Beth have been married for 18 years and have five children. They are friends, lovers, competitors, enemies. At the start of the movie, Jake, a descendant of slaves who has never stopped resenting the fact, loses his job as a fishmonger, setting off a spiral of indolence and abuse. A brutal, thick-necked grizzly bear of a man who tosses back oversize bottles of beer, Jake spends hours holding court at the local pub and then drags his mates home for all-night bashes. The moment someone gets in the way of his party-animal mood, though, look out.

The first time we see him wallop Beth (leaving her with an eye swollen shut), we want to cry out in protest; we want her to leave. Instead, she continues to take care of the kids and calm the beast that is Jake. Watching this feral relationship, with its cyclic displays of brutality and reconciliation, it’s almost impossible not to think of the O.J. Simpson case. Once Were Warriors understands how a woman like Beth (or Nicole Simpson) could stay with an abusive partner because she’s trapped in a prison of fear. At the same time, Morrison, a mesmerizing actor, shows us Jake’s charisma — the sexy magnetism that hooked Beth years ago and still has a hold on her, even as she has come to know the demon inside the man she loves. The movie is daring enough to suggest that since Jake’s punches are his twisted way of connecting to Beth, they become part of the way that she connects to him as well. Rena Owen, with her beautiful, haggard face and toned body, makes Beth a woman of ordinary dreams who has had to become a domestic warrior to survive. Even her soul seems to have sprouted muscles. Owen suggests a Maori Judy Davis — her sad-eyed valor is stirring and forceful, heroic in a completely realistic way.

The most facile thing in the movie is its ”powerful” third-act twist. It centers on the Hekes’ adolescent daughter (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), who with her cautious stare and ripe smile is a touching younger echo of her mother (we can see what nearly 20 years of living with Jake has done to Beth). Although the events themselves aren’t necessarily far-fetched, you can feel the film working overtime to get a rise out of you. Tamahori has the kind of dramatically overcharged instincts that will probably make him a success in Hollywood. Yet for most of Once Were Warriors, his work has fire and substance, too. This is a movie that makes us see the destructive insidiousness of domestic violence — the overweening pride that leads to force, then pain, then sorrow, then oblivion. B+