A shrewd blend of anti-heroic storytelling and irony-tinged heist drama set during the worst days South African apartheid, “Stander” takes a notorious true story about a loyal soldier-turned-bank robber, and pumps it up into charged if uneven entertainment. Thomas Jane has the sort of substantial leading role his career has needed, and helmer and co-writer Bronwen Hughes steers in a radically new direction that hurtles down the high-speed Bruckheimer movie highway but with a politically leftward turn of the wheel. Pic should attract considerable Yank distrib heat while it readies for Canuck and offshore bows, and will grab strong vid booty.
In 1976 Johannesburg, police captain Andre Stander appears on top of his game in every way: marrying the gorgeous Bekkie (Deborah Kara Unger), commanding a crack police unit with partner Cor (Ashley Taylor), even putting in time with a South African army unit. The boiling rage of the black South African majority can barely be felt or heard in Stander’s privileged white world, but his senses seem open to receiving signals of trouble, even if he’s socially and politically unprepared to know how to read or respond to them.
This internal conflict reaches its initial crisis in pic’s first outstanding sequence, when Stander’s troops face off against protesters in Soweto township. Hughes’ camera appears to be everywhere — in the copters overhead, inside the huge but disciplined group of Sowetans and peering right into the eyes of the nervous soldiers, Stander above all. His brutal, impulsive actions spell death, but they also trigger a mindshift he can’t describe, either to Bekkie or to his racist but loving father (Marius Weyers).
The character, as written by Bima Stagg and Hughes and realized by Jane, is a blend of strategist and man of action, with a conscience. Faced with the situation that a murder-kidnapping case can’t be pursued because all available cops are on patrol in Soweto, Stander exclaims, “A white man could get away with anything today!”
Almost before he realizes what he’s doing, Stander is robbing a bank, knowing he can make an easy escape. With rapid dispatch, pic builds a furious rhythm as Stander goes full-bore into thievery using a witty range of disguises, while giving some of his cash away to blacks, lavishing Bekkie with gifts and, amusingly, keeping his day job — even investigating his own crime spree.
The film seduces the viewer into a fascination with the act of bank robbery itself, but like the heists, “Stander” remains efficient and never dawdles over details.
Cor finally nabs his boss in the act, but a lengthy prison sentence doesn’t last long as Stander stages a well-orchestrated breakout with mates Alan (David Patrick O’Hara) and Lee (Dexter Fletcher).
Jane suggests a certain Robert Redford-like potential, especially in the way he uses his natural good looks as one of his character’s major weapons in winning allies. The actor offers a deceptively complex portrayal of a man who refuses to fully bare his soul or mind to anyone (though he liberally bares his body). In a complex spin, he unburdens his guilt during a visit to Soweto, yet never quite becomes the Robin Hood figure the movie seems to be setting up.
Some will take issue with pic’s final turns once the gang’s astonishing string of successful robberies is broken, especially with the anticlimax of Stander’s flight to Florida. A certain forced irony abruptly caps the thriller and leads one to wonder how much of Stander’s life has been fancifully reconstructed.
The supporting cast is on the mark, though Unger has frustratingly little to do. Dialects for non-South African thesps are carefully in place.
Production package is aces, stressing a country deep in the grime of its own corrupt racism. This is best expressed through bleached-color imagery with the aid of lenser Jess Hall, while pace is picked up by editor Robert Ivison and a jazz-rock score by the Free Association.