Judge Patrick Bromley assures us that no gravelly-voiced, bulldog-faced character actors were harmed during the making of this film.
Good cop. Great criminal.
There's nothing in director Bronwen Hughes's résumé—she of Harriet the Spy and Forces of Nature fame—that would suggest her as the ideal director for a gritty and intense film about criminals in apartheid-era South Africa. That her direction proves to be the movie's best asset is its biggest surprise.
It's a good thing, too, seeing as the rest of the film is pretty surprise-free.
Facts of the Case
South African police captain Andre Stander (Thomas Jane, Deep Blue Sea, The Punisher (2004), in yet another performance that fails to capitalize on the promise he showed in Boogie Nights), angry at his fellow countrymen for their treatment of the oppressed native Africans, begins to rob banks—a kind of middle-finger to the power structure in place. He is eventually apprehended and jailed, but, following a jailbreak with two fellow inmates (David O'Hara, Braveheart, and Dexter Fletcher, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), takes to robbing banks again, becoming something of a South African folk hero in the process.
The best thing that can be said about the true-life, cop-turned-robber film Stander is that it's an amped-up, kicky caper flick; the worst is that it isn't much more. Here is a heist film that, because of its roots in actual events, stood a chance of exceeding genre trappings and using the opportunity to tell the story of a real person in a real place at a real point in history. That it fails to do so makes it especially disappointing—it works as a movie, but not as the movie it should have been.
It all begins promisingly enough, as we get a brief glimpse of Stander in his personal life, preparing to remarry his wife, Bekkie (the ever-feline Deborah Kara Unger, The Salton Sea, Leo). While it is never explained why the two got divorced the first time around, that detail alone speaks volumes of Stander's relationship to his job and his family—it's not often that a film allows us to fill in the blanks, especially when it comes to character. We also see Stander at his job where, in the film's best and most troubling scene, the South African police enter into a standoff with a gathering of protestors, eventually opening fire on the unarmed crowd. This is the incident that finally breaks Stander's back—he cannot, in good faith, continue to justify or participate in a system that slaughters people guilty of nothing more than resisting their own persecution. "White men in this country," Stander observes, "can get away with anything"—just to prove his point, he begins robbing banks.
These sequences—all contained in the film's first half-hour—find Stander at its best, as the political climate of South Africa is juxtaposed with the lead character's actions. We're able to see what drives Stander to take the measures he takes, and it gives the bank robbery material more depth than the average crime film; the severity of his crisis of conscious means we not only sympathize with him, but we're on his side, too. Director Bronwen Hughes doesn't allow the proceedings to become weighed down with some sense of self-importance, however, with the use of some nimble pacing and a blast of energy—it's the socially conscious caper with an adrenalized rush.
I've commented before in my writings at DVD Verdict that it can be difficult to criticize films based on the lives of actual people. Unless it's something like Malcolm X, where the central figure is widely respected or the story is well-known, biopics run the risk of mythologizing their subjects in a way that's entirely too cinematic—not the style (Spike Lee's Malcolm X is nothing if not cinematic), but the actual content. Stander, it would seem, falls into that latter category. I'm wary of commenting on the way in which the story ultimately unfolds, but I would be remiss if I did not do so. That's my biggest problem with the film, and the one that keeps it from being successful.
This is not to suggest that I believe the film is purely fictional—I don't know much about Andre Stander beyond what I'm told in the movie, and couldn't say otherwise—but having seen it, I have to assume one of two things: (a) Stander lived the last third of his life according to movie clichés, or (b) liberties have been taken in his story that have resulted in movie clichés. Either way, the second half of the film does nothing to deliver on a uniquely thoughtful and refreshingly original first act.
As Andre embarks on his second string of bank robberies (gang in tow, following their prison break), Stander becomes a carbon copy of every other crime drama you've seen. To map out the ways in which this is done, or to list out the stereotypical genre elements it presents, would involve giving away too much of the plot, which I don't wish to do. I will say, though, that for a film about a man as unpredictable as Andre Stander, the latter half of the film is disappointingly free of any surprises. Even the connection to what started the chain of events in the first place—Stander's desire to destroy South Africa's race-driven power structure from the inside—is only marginally maintained, and it's too bad. That was the best thing the movie had going for it.
Sony's DVD of Stander is in many ways a missed opportunity. With the only included extra being a commentary track from director Hughes (plus a couple of trailers), the supplemental section really comes up short—some historical information or documentary footage of the real-life Andre Stander would have helped fill out the package and potentially assuaged some of the issues I have with the movie. Hughes's commentary helps matters somewhat, if only because she speaks so intelligently about both the subject matter (some of the history surrounding the story) and the process she went through to try and make the movie work. She runs out of steam about halfway through—the gaps of silence become longer and more frequent—but when she does pipe up, it's definitely worth listening to.
As far as the technical merits of the disc are concerned, the presentation is solid. The film, presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, looks excellent—detail is strong and the washed-out color palette (designed to resemble films of the 1970s, which it does) is well represented. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is reasonably powerful as well, balancing the movie's sonic landscape appropriately and having the occasional—but necessary—punch.
There's a fascinating story lurking somewhere inside Stander, but we only get a glimpse of it. It's not a total failure as a movie, thanks to a couple of strong supporting performances (particularly by Deborah Kara Unger) and smart, stylish direction by Hughes. As a heist picture, it isn't half-bad, but it should have been so much more. Here is a film that too easily bows to convention when—like its main character—it should have fought it to the end.
Director Bronwen Hughes is acquitted for her efforts, but Stander gets 20 to life.
Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Bronwen Hughes
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