Actor Cliff Curtis (Fear The Walking Dead, Whale Rider) makes a strong impression in the remarkable, riveting and inspiring New Zealand-set movie The Dark Horse, based on the true-life story of Genesis “Gen” Potini, a bipolar speed chess champion struggling his whole life with mental illness who manages to not only help a group of underprivileged kids discover his game but also in the process lifts himself up against all odds. As I say in my video review above, writer-director James Napier Robertson deftly avoids any temptation towards sentimental slop in this tough tale of a man who tries to overcome his own illness as well as the violence inherent in his family to forge an optimistic view of life and do some good.

pete hammond review badgeBased on the 2003 documentary Dark Horse from director Jim Marbrook, this theatrical version of Potini’s story benefits greatly from New Zealand Maori actor Curtis, who is simply amazing as a man who defies enormous obstacles to make a difference in the lives of several kids.

In and out of mental institutions, Genesis finally is released to the care of his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi), who is a bad influence and lives a life of gang-infested violence. To escape this, Gen volunteers at the Eastern Knights Chess Club, where he trains a group of eager Maori kids to compete in the National Chess Championship. Things get complicated though when his own nephew (James Rolleson), his violent brother’s son, also decides he wants to play. This angers Ariki and causes big trouble for Gen.

At its center of this is a stirring must-see underdog story with faint elements of Rocky-like movies but which has a beating heart all its own. Audiences will be standing and cheering for all the right reasons. The New Zealand-born Curtis is the ideal choice for this role and brings authenticity and real gravitas to it. Rolleson and Hapi are excellent, and the supporting cast of kids, all non-actors, is perfectly chosen and will certainly steal hearts without being cloying.

Although Gen was involved in the early stages of the development of this adaptation, sadly he didn’t live to see it completed and died five years ago. His spirit lives on in Curtis’ portrayal and in the film’s optimistic life message. Tom Hern is the producer of the pic, which Broad Green Pictures sends out into limited release beginning Friday.

Do you plan to see The Dark Horse? Let us know what you think.