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Jump The Gun

"Jump the Gun" is an ironic look at contempo South African society, seen through the eyes of a group hanging out in Johannesburg's underbelly. Pic is a very likable, often acerbically funny work that badly needs some tightening, especially in its first half. With critical backing and overall shearing of about 20 minutes, pic could fire some medium-caliber rounds on the specialized circuit, with tube sales a given. Anyone expecting an ultra-correct broadsheet on the country's post-apartheid situation will be heading for the exit early on. Like fellow Brit improviser-director Mike Leigh, Les Blair has always created films that are primarily character-driven, and "Gun" has the freshness of a filmmaker's approaching a subject without preconceived agendas.

Gugu ... Baby Cele Clinton ... Lionel Newton Minnie ... Michele Burgers Bazooka (Zoo) ... Thulani Nyembe Thabo ... Rapulana Seiphemo J.J. ... Danny Keogh Henry ... Joe Nina Sis Buleng ... Nomsa Nene Johnnie ... Marcel Van Heerden

Working with former BBC current affairs producer Indra De Lanerolle, and little initial knowledge of the realities of mid-’90s life in South Africa, Blair first visited the place, then chose actors who could improvise, and finally wrote a treatment.

During its first half-hour, pic sidles up to a group of characters whose only common factor is a need to find solid ground in a society that’s still inventing a new set of rules. Furthest from the sun is walrus-mustached oil rigger Clint (Lionel Newton), who returns to Jo’burg after some time away and perceptively notes through his alcoholic haze: “South Africa is getting very African.”

Also arriving in town is the more ambitious Gugu (Baby Cele), who’s left her husband and come to stay with her aunt (Nomsa Nene) in a tough black township. The aunt’s circle of acquaintances includes crippled crook Bazooka (Thulani Nyembe), who eyes the newcomer, but Gugu gets her first sack action with smooth buppie (i.e.: black yuppie) accountant Thabo (Rapulana Seiphemo), lured by promises she can audition as a singer with a band he manages.

Meanwhile, Clint has headed for the nearest bar, where he falls in with grizzled Portuguese owner J.J. (Danny Keogh), cabdriver Johnnie (Marcel Van Heerden) and loudly dressed hooker Minnie (Michele Burgers), who takes him home for sex.

Around the hour mark, the scattered pieces of the story gradually start to cohere as the two protagonists’ paths edge toward each other in a complex series of developments.

In a key scene that’s both funny and touching, Clint finally gets to have a real conversation with a black woman. as he and Gugu lie naked under the sheets together next to a sleeping Minnie.

The miracle of Blair’s pic is that he manages to keep obvious messaging at bay in such a potentially charged setting, entirely meeting the challenge of making the characters interesting enough as people in order to transcend race and stereotyping. Major plaudits are due to South African casting director Moonyeen Lee and a troupe of players who perform easily together within Blair’s loose scheme.

As the bemused Clint, who perpetually looks as if he’s wandered into the wrong party, Newton is superb, balancing the contradictory emotions of an Afrikaaner, who finds the rules suddenly changed, with warmth and self-irony.

He’s balanced well by Cele as Gugu, a deceptively ambitious woman for whom sex is just another weapon in carving a life for herself in township society. Her audition for Thabo’s band, in which she starts unsurely but reveals a honeyed voice, is one of the pic’s most magical moments.

In many respects, however, the acting revelation of the pic is Burgers, who gives real substance and depth to druggie-hooker Minnie, a character who starts out as an exotic addition but develops into the most multi-layered of all. She’s someone for whom racial and color lines simply don’t exist.

The problems with Blair’s current cut (already whittled down from a three-hour version) are almost entirely to do with pacing, which was not a problem in his sharply paced “Bad Behavior” (1993). Though one needs to feel engaged with the characters before the plot complications kick in, the first half — and especially the opening reels — are simply too leisurely.

Blair’s ironic humor often gets lost, and the treasurable moments — such as Clint’s first visit to a gun store, stumbling across a robbery in progress when he buys a gift for Minnie, and their first night together — are too few and far between.

Tech credits are fairly basic, though Seamus McGarvey’s lensing brings an almost golden glow to many of the exterior scenes, as well as underlining the gradual progression from darkness to light that infuses the picture. Dialogue sometimes demands close attention, with frequent use of local slang and switching between accented English and (subtitled) African dialects.

Jump The Gun

British-South African

Production: A Film Four Distributors release (in U.K.) of a Channel Four Films presentation of a Parallax Xencat Pictures production. (International sales: Film Four Intl., London.) Produced by Indra De Lanerolle. Executive producer, Sarah Curtis. Co-producer, Jeremy Nathan. Directed, written by Les Blair.

Crew: Camera (Metrocolor), Seamus McGarvey; editor, Oral N. Ottey; original music, Joe Nina; production design, David Barkham; art direction, Shane Bruce; costume design, Ruy Filipe; sound (Dolby), Simon Rice; assistant director, Diana Keam; casting, Moonyeen Lee. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 14, 1997. Running time: 124 MIN. (English and local dialects)

With: Gugu ... Baby Cele Clinton ... Lionel Newton Minnie ... Michele Burgers Bazooka (Zoo) ... Thulani Nyembe Thabo ... Rapulana Seiphemo J.J. ... Danny Keogh Henry ... Joe Nina Sis Buleng ... Nomsa Nene Johnnie ... Marcel Van Heerden

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