Top critical review
a "true" story that is just that....true!
on 15 February 2010
The words "based on a true story" or "based on true events" at the beginning of a film is often times something to be very wary of, particularly in the hands of some of the more sensationalist directors (Tony Scott's Domino springs instantly to mind). However, the story of Johannesburg Police Captain Andre Stander is so unbelievable it simply has to be true, and it is.
It is 1976, the height of the brutal apartheid regimes power in a divided South Africa, and Stander (a terrifically cocksure turn from Thomas Jane) is an up and coming star in the police department. Those in power are determined to stay in power at any cost, and a brutal crackdown is underway in the black townships. During one the riots that marked this tumultuous time, Stander shoots and kills an unarmed man, something he faces no retribution for. Unable to deal with this double standard, Stander appears to have something of a break down, and in a moment of madness he robs a bank, partly as a rather odd attempt at protest. Stander is not only very good at this, but he finds that he enjoys it, and so continues, eventually robbing 26 banks in all before he is eventually captured, often returning to the scenes of his crimes as the investigating officer. Prison does not hold Stander for long, and he and two fellow prisoners, Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher) and Allan Heyl (David O'Hara) form the Stander gang and embark on a veritable crime wave of bank robberies.
This is something of an odd film, attempting to work on two different levels at the same time, both as a political statement and an action movie. Directed by Bronwen Hughes, who previously gave us more lightweight fare such as Forces of Nature or Harriet the Spy, the film works well as a biopic and an action movie, but in its attempts to make Stander into some sort of political reactionary, staging his bank robberies in some sort of misguided sense of protest it really afils to hit its mark, and whilst Stander is the focus of our attention throughout, and in the hands of Thomas Jane is both charismatic and extremely likeable, the films attempts to make the bank robberies into something other than what they are rings very hollow.
But this is really Thomas Jane's film, and he rises to the occasion with aplomb. Stander is daring and cocksure, and Jane makes it very difficult not to like the man, even when we know he is breaking the law, whether as protest or career choice. Ably supported by Dexter Fletcher and David O'Hara who serve only to focus our attention even more acutely on Jane, this film should have cemented Thomas Jane as a fine character actor, but sadly it did not.
The direction is solid but never really flashy, and this works to the benefit of the film, never allowing us to get distracted from the central story by any flashy pyrotechnics, except in a very well staged riot scene early on in the movie. However, were the film does fall down is in its final third, when things not unexpectedly fall apart for the gang, but after a solid beginning this final segment feels a little rushed , and much of Stander's later life seems somewhat glossed over. Ultimately this is not as big a problem as you may think, just watch the film for an unbelievable story that turns out to be true.