The unhealed wounds of post-apartheid South Africa get a brutal but superficial once-over in Jerome Salle’s savagely violent cop thriller “Zulu.” Toplining Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker as two detectives uniquely scarred by their nation’s cruel racial legacy, this adaptation of Caryl Ferey’s 2010 novel has the commercial slickness of Salle’s transnational actioners “Largo Winch” and “The Burma Conspiracy.” Yet the French-South African co-production is stacked with cliches and contrivances that fail to resonate with any real specificity or authenticity, the fine location work notwithstanding. The film’s grueling subject matter will severely test its theatrical prospects, demanding dedicated specialty handling.
The sensationalism starts immediately, with a harrowing flashback to the politically motivated atrocities that occurred in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province in the early ’90s, seen here through the eyes of a terrorized child. After witnessing his father get burned alive, the boy grows up to be Ali (Whitaker), chief of the Cape Town police’s homicide division. It’s the present day, nearly 20 years after the official end of apartheid, but the racial/social inequities and horrific violence of the era still persist in subversive ways, as becomes clear when Ali and two other cops, Brian (Bloom) and Dan (Conrad Kemp), begin investigating the grisly murder of a 20-year-old white girl.
Turns out the deceased had a mysterious meth-based drug in her system, the origins of which the cops trace to a gang of machete-wielding drug dealers, leading to a vicious standoff that ends tragically for Dan. But even after the girl’s presumed murderer is found, Ali and Brian find themselves plunged deeper still into a disturbing thicket of corruption and injustice whose branches can reach, with unnerving precision, into their personal lives. Perhaps the most unsettling and provocative plot development concerns the nature of the drug in question, a so-called “ethnic bomb” effectively engineered to carry out apartheid’s genocidal aims.
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With its numerous scenes of torture, shootings and stabbings, plus the odd severed head or hand, “Zulu” orchestrates a whirlwind of violence that feels equal parts tough reality and exploitation. Even the closeup shots of lab mice, ripping each other to shreds after having been given concentrated drug doses, feel calculated to shock and repel. The sheer unpleasantness of all this admittedly virtuoso carnage simply overwhelms whatever ideas scribes Salle and Julien Rappeneau might have intended to get across about the endangered state of South Africa today, from the racial divisions that continue to spur gang warfare to the injustice of granting amnesty to apartheid killers. It doesn’t exactly further the cause to have the characters engage these topics in heavy-handed discussions, replete with dialogue such as “The past is the past” and “Some things aren’t easy to forgive.”
Although neither actor is at his best here, Whitaker and Bloom have been given meaty character histories to play, the better to link their personal traumas to their respective investigations (which, interestingly, seem to occur almost independently of each other). Yet these melodramatic formulations serve only to clutter and cheapen the narrative, particularly in the case of Brian, who spends far too much of the picture exchanging insults with his ex-wife and playing neglectful dad to a teenage son who looks more like Bloom’s younger brother. It all comes perilously close to soap opera, a sense reinforced by the filmmakers’ fondness for showing Bloom in various states of undress.
Technically, the picture is first-rate, benefiting from the expert combo of Denis Rouden’s vibrant-hued photography and superb location scouting. A stunning helicopter shot of Cape Town announces the film’s sweeping sociological intentions at the outset, and Salle provides fascinating glimpses of the city at every level, from the cluttered shantytowns to the wide-open sand dunes where the climactic action unfolds. Alexandre Desplat supplies a keening, operatic score that, however overplayed, sounds almost like the cry for justice and forgiveness that the rest of this morally and dramatically confused picture struggles to articulate.