Stander has been waiting to be made for some twenty years, its screenplay having been written by Bima Stagg shortly after South African cop-turned-robber Andre Stander was gunned down in a February 1984 shootout with Fort Lauderdale police. (If this is giving away the ending to the film, so be it -- or perhaps you thought Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were going to dance unharmed between the hailstorm of bullets at the end of Bonnie and Clyde, in which case, all apologies.) Writer Bima Stagg lived in South Africa in the 1980s and fully digested the myth of Stander, subject there of at least one play (Stander Lives) and several books that both celebrated and denigrated his rep as that country's Robin Hood and Clyde Barrow, a good guy who became a bad guy only after having his fill of his fellow officers' cruelty and corruption. Stander, in death but even well before, became larger than life among the whites from whom he brazenly stole without ever firing a shot and the blacks to whom he represented the ultimate anti-authoritarian figure, the hell-raising copper. There are even those in Johannesburg who believe he is still alive and wandering the streets -- Elvis as stick-up artist.
Over the years, many directors have been attached to the project, including Barbet Schroeder, but all passed until it landed in the lap of the most unlikely candidate, Bronwen Hughes, a Canadian best known for her benignly winsome, Nickelodeon-produced adaptation of Harriet the Spy in 1996 and the screwed-up screwball would-be comedy Forces of Nature with Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck three years later. Nothing on her tiny filmography suggested she had within her the vision and might to make something as remarkable as Stander, which fuses the wrenching immediacy of Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday with the dark humor of Bonnie and Clyde and the breezy pacing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yet the movie, with its shifts in tone (from the polemic to the comic) and contrasts in colors (the brown 1970s brighten as we enter the 1980s), has its own identity. Unlike, say, Barry Levinson's Bandits, another movie in which kindly bank robbers don disguises that look as if they've been pilfered from a costume shop along the escape route, Stander doesn't have the dusty feel of pastiche.
It's just as well, too, that the movie lingered in limbo as long as it did; it would have been unthinkable without Thomas Jane, who finally reveals himself as possessing a movie star's radiance after so many failed attempts. Or perhaps it's just far more fun to be a brazen, macho bad guy than a brooding, macho good guy, which he was earlier this year in The Punisher, a movie that drowned in its own bloodshed and left Jane gasping for air. Since a good hunk of the movie is set in the late 1970s, it's not accidental that Jane plays Stander like some hybrid of Steve McQueen in The Getaway and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy -- as a crooked man with a cockeyed grin who uses his charm to get what lesser men would demand with a shotgun. Like George Clooney in Out of Sight, Jane finds his big-screen bearings as a bank robber to whom tellers are only too happy to hand over the cash.
For the first thirty minutes or so, Jane plays Andre like a man at torturous odds with everything around him -- his job (at 31, he was the youngest captain in the South African police force), his wife Bekka (played by Deborah Kara Unger, whom he is seen remarrying during the movie's opening moments), and his own father, a beloved police general played by Marius Weyers, who trod similar ground in 1993's Bopha! It's all Andre can do to keep his clothes on during the movie's early scenes, whether he's making love with his wife on the beach or thrashing around in his den to the rock music booming from his headphones. It's a metaphor taken to the literal extreme: Andre would rather be nude than wear his uniform one more second, especially after he's put on riot duty and kills an unarmed black man while putting down a student revolt in Tembisa. It's this action, accidental but inevitable, that sends Andre over the edge: Better to be a bad guy, he figures, than a good guy who does evil things in the desperate scuttle to maintain apartheid.
Once the movie turns into a heist picture, it ditches its politics in the pursuit of a good time. Andre and his jail-break gang, Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher) and Allan Heyl (David Patrick O'Hara), don their myriad dopey disguises and conduct their bad business over a rollicking soundtrack of '70s rock, giving it the feel-good vibe of a Starsky and Hutch joyride. It's darker, of course: Andre's act of revolution might have been born of revulsion, but it becomes apparent rather quickly that he digs being a criminal more than he ever loved being a cop. There's also the suggestion that he possesses a sort of death wish; no man is that brazen without hoping there's a bullet waiting for him around the next corner. But, till that moment arrives, the movie is stirringly, thrillingly animated; Stander, as some say around Johannesburg, lives.
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