As a perennially popular international filming location — its varied landscapes standing in for everywhere from the Sahara to the French Riviera — South Africa has provided the anonymous backdrop for many a slick big-budget action thriller over the years. Rarer are films from the country’s own industry that aspire to equivalent commercial thrills, which lends Cape Town-based writer-director Travis Taute’s debut feature “Indemnity” a certain bracing novelty that counters its more generic qualities. Joining a PTSD-afflicted firefighter on the run after being framed for the murder of his wife, Taute’s diverting film punches well above its modestly budgeted weight in terms of propulsive, literally incendiary action scenes — but is on less sure footing with a narrative that lurches from lean fugitive drama to overworked conspiracy nightmare.
A far stricter edit could have solved a number of problems in this unevenly paced and, at 124 minutes, significantly overlong film, which is both slow to get going and repetitive in its denouement. “Indemnity’s” far fleeter middle section, however, is both a clear glimpse of the tense, tidy 90-minute exercise it could have been, and an enticing calling card for Taute himself. Hitherto best known for the Netflix series “Blood & Water,” he shows enough directorial style and athleticism here to handle a more expensive production with more moving parts.
His writing leaves somewhat more to be desired, when it comes to both the film’s rather flat, declarative dialogue (“I have proof of a huge government conspiracy,” a character declares early on) and its halting, occasionally murky storytelling. Charismatic leading man Jarrid Geduld, too, fares best when the film opts for less talk and more action: Though the script saddles his protagonist, Theo Abrams, with a weighty psychological backstory, he’s most engaging and sympathetic in stretches of in-the-moment, on-the-move panic, pragmatism and rage — as the film bounces him between plot points pulled from “The Fugitive,” “The Bourne Identity” and even “The Manchurian Candidate.”
A vividly shot, suitably claustrophobic prologue establishes the source of Theo’s issues, as he and his fellow firemen battle a catastrophic blaze in a deprived Cape Flats township. At considerable risk, he defies protocol to rescue a baby from a burning dwelling, with tragic consequences that emerge in haunted flashback. Months later, we find him suspended from his job and attempting to dull his trauma with alcohol, a method he finds more effective than those practiced in mandatory sessions with a brisk psychotherapist (Susan Danford). Relations with his patient journalist wife Angela (Nicole Fortuin) are strained, and at least verbally violent: When he wakes up the morning after a shouting match to find her strangled to death beside him, the evidence is not in his favor.
Suddenly, Angela’s brushed-off warning to him that he’s in danger — following a tip-off from a mysterious informant — doesn’t sound so paranoid. Shadowy defense contractor M-Tech appears to be targeting a long list of inexplicably connected individuals, and with police detective Rene Williamson (Gail Mabalane) hardly inclined to listen to his frantic explanations, he has little choice but to investigate the conspiracy himself, on the fly. A spectacularly staged police van crash provides his escape route: The chase, on all sides, is on.
The succession of tense shootouts and standoffs that ensues is sporadically paused as the film earnestly addresses the impact of PTSD on emergency services professionals, though viewers will be more invested in elaborately physical setpieces. The film’s fight choreography and stunt work are particularly sharp, not least in an extended hotel-room escape sequence that sees Theo cribbing from both the James Bond and MacGyver playbooks; Zenn van Zyl’s lensing is accordingly fast and fluid.
“Indemnity” plays most effectively at this practical, heart-in-mouth level. The stakes are sufficiently high, and the crisis sufficiently immersive, that the film’s pivot into light science fiction — as the M-Tech mob proves more sinister still in its reach — feels distractingly artificial. The film’s resourcefully deployed budget isn’t quite up to the script’s ideas of advanced global techno-conspiracy, giving proceedings in the third act an air of play-acting that it never has when more tightly focused on Theo’s plight. “The internet is an amazing thing,” he unconvincingly says at one point, explaining away a few plot holes in the process. Taute may have a big future, but his debut is best when keeping things small, simple and specific, with its feet planted — and running for dear life — on the ground.