Every country, it seems, has its folk-hero outlaws, and movies are regularly made about them. In England Robin Hood comes immediately to mind. In America treatments of Jesse James and Billy the Kid abound, and even Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde have achieved iconic status. Recently Australia produced yet another cinematic version of the life of Ned Kelly. And now South Africa gets into the act with “Stander.”
Andre Stander (Thomas Jane) was a captain in the Johannesburg police force in the waning days of the apartheid regime during the late 1970s. For some reason–the script suggests that it was because of his moral opposition to the entire racist system and his guilt at having killed a protestor during demonstrations in the black townships–he uses his insider knowledge of the department’s force dispositions to pull off a succession of daring bank robberies, often serving as the chief investigator after the fact. Still, he’s eventually caught by his colleague Cor Van Deventer (Ashley Taylor)–to the shock of his wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and aging father, a distinguished retired general (Marius Weyers)–and sentenced to a long prison term. But he stages an audacious escape with con Allan Heyl (David Patrick O’Hara), and after springing Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher), a third inmate, they become the country’s most notorious gang, pulling off heist after heist and repeatedly embarrassing the country’s law-enforcement apparatus. The outcome of all this is predictably downbeat: the police ultimately track town the robbers, depending on information provided by a girl McCall has unwisely linked up with, and though Stander himself manages to flee to the United States through a clever ruse that Van Deventer is just a tad too slow to foil, his despondency finally causes him to recklessly call attention to himself in Florida–with tragic results.
By far the most intriguing aspect of Stander’s career is the issue of what drove him to his actions, and the most powerful part of Bronwen Hughes’ version of his life is the recreation of the Tembisa demonstration that so affected him. (A later sequence in which he returns to the township to confront the father of the man he killed is a bit too melodramatic to be fully effective.) But most of the running-time is devoted to the robberies, both before and after the prison break. The earlier heists, when Stander was still in the police force and acting alone, are nicely staged, but the gang’s operations in the second half of the picture are done in a glitzy, hyperkinetic style, complete with oversaturated color and distorted camerawork, that’s meant to give it a surrealistic kick but winds up merely looking mannered and feeling visually exhausting. The pulsating, whiplash welter of images leave little time to examine what might have been the political motives that lay behind Stander’s actions; and when the movie fashions a “Bonnie and Clyde”-style set-piece of McCall’s death–guns blazing, bullets flying and glass shattering all around–it becomes clear that the makers have opted for empty visceral excitement to the virtual exclusion of any thoughtful treatment of their subject.
Still, within the admittedly limited opportunities afforded by the script, Jane paints as complex a portrait as he can of Stander. He certainly tries to get at the man’s inner conflicts, but despite his efforts, Andre remains an obstinately opaque figure, not least in the picture’s final Florida sequence. The only other members of the cast who register much are Fletcher and O’Hara, and though the latter is reasonably restrained, the former chews the scenery so unabashedly that one wishes the director had clamped down on him some. Weyers evinces quiet dignity as the hero’s uncomprehending, tradition-bound father, but Unger is a blank as Stander’s wife, and Taylor comes across as a poor man’s David Thewlis as the captain’s loyal but suspicious assistant.
Within the context of its questionable stylistic choices, “Stander” is reasonably well produced; the period detail in clothing, for example, seems carefully achieved. But once again, it’s the ten-minute demonstration scene that’s the most impressive single sequence in the film–it has an immediacy and authenticity that the rest of the film never matches. Perhaps on his home turf “Stander” will have greater resonance and power. On these American shores, however, it comes across as a picture we’ve seen quite often before, and one that doesn’t offer sufficiently new insight into its standard plot to make it fresh or compelling.