Thomas Jane as Andre Stander
Dexter Fletcher as Lee McCall
David Patrick O’Hara as Allan Heyl
Deborah Kara Unger as Bekkie Stander
Marius Weyers as General Stander
Ashley Tayler as Cor Van Deventer
In Apartheid era South Africa, police captain Andre Stander (Thomas Jane) is unhappy with the world around him, so he stages a series of bank robberies right under the nose of his own partner and police force. After being caught, he escapes from prison and along with two fellow convicts, resumes the bank robberies making each one even more elaborate than the last, becoming a folk hero in the bargain.
If there’s any doubt that there is a guilty pleasure in rooting for the bad guy than movies like Scarface and Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would never have been made, let alone reached the heights of acclaims as classics.
Stander gives you plenty of reasons to cheer for Andre Stander’s clever escapades, as he takes on different identities and clever disguises to throw the authorities off his trail. What makes this fascinating real life criminal and his story so unique is his dual tie to the law, so most of the time, those authorities are his very own police department, making it even more confusing for the poor bank tellers as he shows up to investigate his own crimes. In many ways, the charm of Thomas Jane’s portrayal of Stander is similar to that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s conman in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, always challenging himself to get away with bigger scores while never resorting to violence in doing so.
His story reverberates because of the Apartheid South Africa environment of the 70’s, something laboriously recreated by director Brownen Hughes. It’s a story well worthy of a cinematic retelling, but it takes at least twenty minutes for the movie to get going and hit its pace. It opens slowly, introducing Stander and attempting to establish the relationships between him and his estranged ex-wife, with whom he had reunited, and with his army general father. The movie’s early turning point throws Stander into the middle of a township uprising that quickly turns violent, forcing him to shoot an unarmed man. This scene not only creates the movie’s emotional high point but considering that it was shot on location in South Africa with so much attention on the detail, it is quite a cinematic coup for Hughes. From there, the pace picks up, as he begins his bank robbery spree, becoming a modern-day Robin Hood, attempting to pay off the guilt of his crimes by giving some of his ill-got earnings to the poor black people he meets. The anti-Apartheid roots of the protagonist are quickly forgotten though, and by the time it returns to them, it seems almost like an afterthought.
The movie is quite a departure for Hughes, who cut her teeth on movies like Harriet the Spy and Forces of Nature, two movies that couldn’t be any more different from Stander. You have to give her credit for trying to recreate the look and feel of a 70’s film using computer processes to lower the color spectrum, but it makes the movie look very low fidelity, which is distracting. The combination of this with the fast-paced editing makes the entire movie look like a music video. At one point, the three criminals in suits and disguises come out of a bank, and you can’t help but think of the Beastie Boys in their Sabotage video. It’s the type of over-stylizing filmmaking made popular by modern Brit directors like Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle, and in this case, it distracts from what should be a fairly straightforward story.
Fortunately, Thomas Jane is nothing sort of amazing in the role of Stander, showing a wide range of emotions and literally becoming different characters. If you did not know better, you would be convinced that Jane is South African, because the various accents he takes on are perfect. Jane is truly a chameleon in the way that he makes the character work on so many levels, and this movie is the perfect calling card for an actor who hasn’t gotten nearly enough recognition for his talents. Sadly, the same can’t be said for much of the rest of the cast who give bland, unmemorable performances that drag some of the scenes down. The best of them is Ashley Taylor as Stander’s partner Cor Van Deventer, a man driven to capture his former best friend, maybe in hopes of saving him?
The movie’s soundtrack by David Holmes and the Free Association is also terrific, mixing 70’s style instrumental music with a South African flavor. Many of the best scenes are driven by the perfectly upbeat music, and if nothing else, one can walk away from this movie having bobbed their head to some cool tunes. Anyone who saw Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 will already be familiar with Holmes’ talent, but it’s even more surprising to find out that he also provided the moody soundtrack for Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, also out this week.
The Bottom Line:
There is certainly room for more stories about modern day anti-heroes, and Stander has the advantages of taking place during a volatile time in South African history, making its lead character that much more interesting. Unfortunately, the movie is far from perfect as the erratic pacing and overly stylish filmmaking tricks bog down the story and the amazing performance by Thomas Jane. Because of this, Stander is merely standard as far as crime dramas go.
Stander opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.