2003Director: Bronwen Hughes
Cast: Thomas Jane, Deborah Kara Unger, Dexter Fletcher
eleased theatrically at the Toronto Film Festival as far back as September 2003, then in South Africa, where the film is set, a month later, Stander is one of those rare gems that inexplicably struggle to find widespread distribution. Receiving a negligible US release in August 2004 and hitting UK cinemas a full year later, Bronwen Hughes’s electric film has been much anticipated on Australian shores. Unfortunately it has been typically unable to find its way into theatres here, securing only a measly straight to DVD release in December 2005. A sad, strange history for what turns out to be one of the most interesting and entertaining crime flicks of recent years.
Johannesburg Police Captain Andre Stander is the youngest serving officer on the force—and the most disgruntled. Deeply ashamed of the white South African policy he is ordered to implement, Stander’s resentment toward the authority structure of which he is a pivotal part frustrates him deeply and even effects his marital life. It is during one of the numerous township riots, to which the entire Jo’burg police force are dispatched in a show of strength, leaving Stander alone in the station house, that he angrily muses, “A white man could do anything in this town today.”
On impulse, he decides to test his theory and rob a downtown bank. The investigation of this daring act is assigned to the senior officer—who just so happens to be none other than Stander himself. Suddenly excited at the prospect of putting one over on the establishment he despises, the now-addicted Stander dons a variety of hilarious disguises and thieves his way through a slew of banks until his eventual arrest by his subordinates.
This would be story enough to drive most thrillers, but here it’s only the beginning. Once incarcerated, Stander’s irreverent personality wins him the respect of the other prisoners, in particular, two men named Heyl and McCall. Never one to lie down and accept punishment, Stander duly escapes from prison with McCall, breaks back in to spring Heyl, forms the infamous Stander gang and with great gusto proceeds to rob forty-seven banks, much to the delight of a repressed populace.
Sound a bit too far-fetched? Well, here’s the rub—Hughes’s film is based on actual events. Indeed she was nervous about including the more outlandish aspects of the story, such as the scene where the gang rob the same bank twice (which they did after seeing the manager gloating on television that they had missed his hidden vault), as she quite rightly felt that no one would believe it actually happened.
But it did. And truth being ultimately stranger than fiction, as a film Stander succeeds admirably on every level. Hughes’s direction is slick and grungy, effectively portraying the transition period between the seventies and eighties superbly, the photography and film stock lending the feature a genuinely retro look rather than a hackneyed modern take on the period. The performances, too, are outstanding. The criminally underused Dexter Fletcher is a revelation as the sensitive McCall, the gang member most likely to snap under pressure, but who manages to hold it together, a neat subversion of a stock crime character. He is rewarded with one of the best send-offs a character, or indeed an actor, could ever hope for.
David Patrick O’Hara, memorable as the weird Irishman in Braveheart is solid and convincing as Heyl, the hardened con who knows when he’s onto a good thing. Deborah Kara Unger, another underused performer, excels as the put-upon Bekkie Stander, the knowing wife, twice married to a man who bears no surprises.
It is, however, Thomas Jane who underpins this film. His performance as Andre Stander is so far removed from anything else he has done that it is shameful to witness the work being offered to such a talented young actor. He demonstrates a charm, raw physical sexuality, intelligence and emotional depth that make a convincing that he’s not only one of the most capable, exciting actors around at the moment, but perhaps the greatest unsung talent in the business today. He’s that good.
Stander is one of those movies that one must see in order to believe—and even then, you may not believe it. As the credits roll, the pleasure of having just watched such a satisfying film is, sadly, only diminished by the knowledge and subsequent anger that such an extraordinary little feature has been hung out to dry by gutless distributors. Find it wherever you can.
By: Chris Flynn
Published on: 2006-01-13