August 20th, 2004
A powerful South African crime caper based on a true story, "Stander" crackles with unexpected style from underdog director Bronwen Hughes. Enlivened by a rare accomplished performance from Tom Jane and a screenplay that knows how to have fun with the contact high of stealing while maintaining a strong social commentary on 1976 Johannesburg, "Stander" works terrifically.
In 1976, Andre Stander (Thomas Jane, “The Punisher”) was a dedicated South African riot officer who cautiously watched as his country was being torn apart by violence and racial unrest. After killing an unarmed protestor, a troubled Stander took a desk job to hide from the violence, but quickly realized that the city was ripe with criminal opportunity. Hastily deciding one day on a lifestyle change, Stander robbed a local bank, discovering how easy it was to get away with the crime. Soon enough, Stander started stealing on a daily basis, evading the law, building a team of accomplices (including Dexter Fletcher and David O’Hara), and becoming a criminal legend across the country.
Leading a rather modest existence as a filmmaker, Bronwen Hughes has certainly taken garbage and made it surprisingly sweet smelling. Hughes took the stagnant “Harriet the Spy” and turned it into a jazzy little pre-teen girl adventure. Her next film, the underrated 1999 romantic comedy, “Forces of Nature,” featured a robust, fascinating visual palette, sweet performances, and an climax where - gasp! - the two leads didn’t end up together. Hughes graduates to less sentimental material with “Stander;” a rough and ready crime drama that throbs with her visual touches and inspired performances.
As bio-pics go, “Stander” is refreshingly to the point. Opening with Andre Stander’s revitalization through his remarriage to his wife Bekkie (Deborah Unger), the film quickly pushes on to Stander’s moral awakening, seen through a violent uprising between the white police and the oppressed Africans in a South African shantytown. Hughes captures accurately that eye-of-the-storm moment in violence when the participants understand that death will occur; it’s just a matter of who will fire first. Hughes gets right in there with her camera, meticulously developing and detailing the reasons behind Stander’s ethical objections to murder, which play a significant role in the events that follow.
Once Stander leaves the riot squad for a desk job, the film breaks into its 2nd and longest act. The heist material is dicey stuff for Hughes and screenwriter Bima Stagg, especially coming after the glut of “Ocean’s Eleven” knockoffs that have shot down the pipe in the last three years. The joy of “Stander” comes in its efficiency and speed capturing Stander’s bank robbery, which started simply because all the police were outside the city fending off the Africans. Initially, there was minimal planning (if at all) to the crimes, and Hughes deftly keeps the audience engaged in Stander’s thievery through his use of multiple disguises and a low-tech, but highly kinetic style. “Stander” doesn’t become weighed down by the details of the crimes; it enjoys the sugar-high the Stander gang receives from the attention and rewards, which, for Stander, meant attempting to make peace with his African neighbors.
I also must remark on the grainy, washed out photography. With the exception of some crane shots and a slo-mo moment, “Stander” looks like a true relic of the era at certain moments, which is a remarkable achievement. Hughes and cinematographer Jess Hall make abundant use of shadow and the blazing South African sun to capture Stander’s exploits, and the film looks gorgeous.
Thomas Jane heads “Stander” with a multifaceted, detailed performance that makes his career even more confusing. An uncontrollably, sometime despicably uneven actor, Jane can never be counted on for quality, but he delivers the goods here. Hughes guides Jane through an intricate emotional framework for Stander, from his glee in the criminal moment to his moral despair and the longing that follows his inability to take Bekkie along with him for the ride. Jane’s great here, which makes ghastly performances in past films like “The Sweetest Thing” and “Deep Blue Sea” all the more confusing. A true life South African story of greed and guilt, “Stander” crackles with style and speed. A tiny, but sizable delight.
My rating: B+