The kiss-kiss outweighs the bang-bang in writer-director Steven Silver’s “The Bang Bang Club,” which frames the true story of four daredevil photojournalists in South Africa as some sort of socially conscious date movie. These men were more than eyewitnesses to apartheid, but also adrenaline junkies who put themselves in harm’s way; while bullets flew around them, they shot pictures that exploded like nuclear warheads across the world press. Silver was right to emphasize the characters’ personal lives, but the romantic angle isn’t as relevant as what makes them click. Either way, auds will likely avoid the political-seeming subject.
“Club” uses Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe, still acting in gruff “Stop-Loss” mode) as its point of entry, following the greenhorn photog directly into the fray for a tense opening scene. There’s a palpable extreme-sports element to their behavior, as the four guys weave and dodge amid the gun-wielding South Africans, invading the personal space of armed aggressors and wounded victims alike. Though it goes unspoken, the governing principle seems to be that if these Westerners were not there to record these atrocities, they may as well not have happened.
Despite all the good the Bang Bang gang did in documenting the final days of white oppression and tribal infighting around Soweto, the photographers were all complex, complicated individuals. They were driven by the promise of money, personal outrage at the events they witnessed and, if Silver’s angle is to be believed, the catnip-like appeal of their work to supermodel-caliber young ladies. Sweetest of the lot is a chestnut-haired photo editor (Malin Akerman) who knows better than to date her freelancers and yet still can’t resist Marinovich’s advances.
Of the principal cast, only Phillippe will be familiar to auds, with the other three shooters played by relative newcomers. As Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva, respectively, Frank Rautenbach and Neels Van Jaarsveld look almost interchangeable at times, both broodingly serious but not nearly as edgy as one might expect them to be in person. Pic’s real discovery is Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) — tortured, hauntingly handsome and just mysterious enough in the tragic role of Kevin Carter, a junkie whose drug habit serves as a metaphor for the greater addiction that seems to affect them all.
Over the course of their South African assignment, the gang became as notorious as the events they covered, generating in-depth profiles, an Oscar-nominated short and a memoir written by the two surviving members. That level of exposure raises the question of whether Silver should have taken more liberties with the story, since “Club’s” entertainment value suffers at the expense of trying to capture the events as they happened — an ill-advised endeavor, considering everything the group’s frontline mentality represented.
Silver, who also exec produced the powerful Rwandan portrait “Shake Hands With the Devil,” may come from a documentary background, but “Club” never feels in-the-moment. The actors are too handsome, the tone too polite, and every false note underlines the fact that we are watching a re-creation. The scene in which Carter stumbles across his Pulitzer Prize-winning moment — a starving girl bent over, while a vulture patiently waits for her to die — essentially contradicts everything he stood for.
If ever there was a film that called for the Paul Greengrass style of visceral, hunt-and-shoot cinematography, this is it, and though d.p. Miroslaw Baszak goes handheld during action scenes, the coverage feels so complete, we never feel the danger of being in the photographers’ shoes. While the characters risk everything to get the shot, “Club’s” cameramen seem inexplicably protected: When Marinovich does a crazy sprint through a live firefight, the crew has no trouble keeping up. Quality visual effects and real location work bring a measure of authenticity back to the equation.
Because the photographers often found themselves caught up in the violence, their methods raised many fascinating moral and ethical questions, and Silver does his best to float them during the course of the film, repeatedly depicting situations in which these objective observers could have interceded in killings but instead chose to document them. Still, much of the ambiguity that makes these scenarios compelling disappears when actors try to pin down their characters’ motivations (in two cases, with the aid of the men they were playing), and “Club” ultimately has the disheartening effect of simplifying the gnarly minefield of its subject.