Sunday, June 26, 2005

Stander (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2003

"Opportunity turns honest man into thief" is an Italian proverb that could be applied to the protagonist of STANDER, 2003 crime drama directed by Bronwen Hughes. The plot takes place in 1976 South Africa where men like Andres Stander (played by Thomas Jane) had it all. As a member of privileged Boer family and son of highly respected general (played by Marcus Weyers) he rose in the ranks of South African law enforcement, became the youngest police captain in history and married beautiful Bekkie (played by Deborah Kara Unger). But this idyll is crumbling when the oppressed black majority start to demand the end of apartheid regime and Stander has to take part in bloody suppression of demonstrations in Soweto. This traumatic experience gives him an idea – if police is busy fighting demonstrators, it wouldn't have resources to deal with regular crime. Stander begins the series of audacious armed robberies that would end with his capture three years later. Sentenced to 75 years of prison, he befriends career criminals Lee McCall (played by Dexter Fletcher) and Allan Heyl (played by David O'Hara) and after successful escape starts even more spectacular series of robberies, becoming some sort of folk hero in the process.

Based on the true story hardly known outside South Africa, STANDER is surprisingly accomplished film. Thomas Jane gives very good performance, successfully tackling both the complex character and South African accent. The action scenes are wonderfully directed, while the cinematography of Jess Hall and effective use of 1970s soundtrack give the film a proper period atmosphere. The film does a credible job in showing how the different worlds clashes in apartheid South Africa – not only the affluent whites and oppressed blacks, but also the highly regimented social system with 1970s hedonism and individualism. Hughes, responsible for utterly disappointing romantic comedy FORCES OF NATURE, took a great risk by entering this unfamiliar territory and the risk paid off.

STANDER deservingly gained a lot of praise, but it also had some flaws. The major problem is in Bima Staggs's script which tries too hard to put Stander's story in broader social, historical and political context. The film argues that Stander became criminal because he was disgusted with the brutality of the regime whose laws he had to protect, as well as guilt-stricken about his own role in such brutality. This is explicitly presented in almost surreal scene which is supposed to moving, but comes out as Hollywood invention rather than something based on fact. What STANDER fails to present is an answer why the protagonist chose bank robbing as a way to exercise those demons when other options – emigration, resigning from police or joining anti-apartheid movements – were open. Another of the film's problem is the obligatory romance which manifests itself in a steamy but completely unnecessary sex scene.

However, despite those flaws, STANDER deserves recommendation as fascinating film that confirms the old adage of truth being stranger than fiction.

RATING: 6/10 (++)


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