The basic plot is hardly a new one–a hardened guy thawed when he’s suddenly called on to care for an infant. It’s a premise that’s been played for comedy and sentiment more times than one would care to count, from silent one-reelers to “3 Godfathers” and “3 Men and a Baby,” and one might assume that it had been done to death by now. But “Tsotsi” gives it a new lease on life. That’s largely because writer-director Gavin Hood’s film has a drive and intensity–complemented by a pulsating score from Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker–that are only occasionally impeded by detours into mushiness; because in the widescreen cinematography of Lance Gewer it has a compelling look; and because it boasts a vibrant lead performance by Presley Chweneyagae as the titular figure, a young street thief.

But it’s also because it’s based on a novel by Athol Fugard, the South African playwright whose works, taken together, have been among the most powerful commentaries on his country’s history of racial intolerance and its effects; and while the updating of the 1960s story to the present alters some of its emphases and imagery, it retains many of the strengths of the original, particularly in terms of applying its message about the redemptive power of human sympathy, dramatized in terms of its protagonist, to the nation as a whole. One can see South Africa’s social problems–and their potential solutions–encapsulated in Tsotsi.

When we first meet the nineteen-year old, whose titular street name simply means Thug, he’s the quietly menacing, apparently soulless, brutal leader of a small group of young men who nonchalantly terrorize, rob and sometimes kill random victims in violence-prone Johannesburg. After a confrontation in which he nearly kills one of his own gang, Tsotsi goes off by himself and steals a car outside a posh gated house, shooting the female driver in the process. He soon discovers that there’s a baby in the back seat, however, and turns fiercely protective of the infant, taking it back to his shack and even pressuring a young widow (Terry Pheto) with a child of her own to breast-feed the baby. Ultimately Tsotsi leads his gang in burglarizing the house where he stole the car, in the course of which the injured woman’s husband is threatened as well.

The trajectory of the picture is a predictable one: the gradual softening of Tsotsi’s attitude as his paternal instinct takes over comes as no surprise, and the childhood flashback designed to explain his initially hard, brutal personality is pat. But the portrayal of the young protagonist’s viciousness in the early reels (particularly in scenes involving a man on a subway and a wheelchair-bund beggar) is quite stunning, and the halting relationship between Tsotsi and the strangely hopeful young widow becomes genuinely moving. There are also glimpses of feral young orphans living on the fringes of society that have an almost hallucinatory quality. And the final scene carries a considerable punch, mixing sadness and hope without descending into preachiness. The energy of the direction and cinematography, the sharp editing (by Megan Gill), the pulsating score and the performances of Chwebeyagae and Pheto, as well as the supporting cast, are also instrumental in carrying the film over the melodramatic pitfalls.

So while “Tsotsi” may not break new narrative ground, it infuses a familiar story with rare intensity and feeling, as well as a palpable sense of place.