Featured Movie Review: Stander (2003)

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Film Critic: Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling

Stander is a biographical crime thriller directed by Bronwen Hughes and starring Thomas Jane as Captain André Stander, a police officer turned bank robber. Set in the wake of the Soweto uprising, Stander shoots an unarmed protestor in the line of duty, forcing him to become disillusioned with the apartheid system. On a whim, he robs a bank and gets away with it. This rush of blood and stick-it-to-the-man attitude prompts him to go on a spree of bank robberies, even called in his capacity as a police captain to investigate his own crime.

Released in 2003, Stander is another case of an international film production relying on overseas talents to play South Africans. Casting Thomas Jane, who initially refused what would become one of his most praised roles, Jane’s supporting cast include: Deborah Kara Unger as his wife Bekkie Stander and his accomplices, David O’Hara as Alan Heyl and Dexter Fletcher as Lee McCall. While the primary cast are composed of actors from America, Canada, Scotland and England, they give Marius Weyers and Ashley Taylor some good screen time as General Stander and Cor van Deventer with almost every other role cast locally.

To their credit, the international actors do a reasonable job with harnessing the South African accent (whatever that means in a country with 11 official languages). Deborah Kara Unger is sultry personified and doesn’t skip a beat with her voice work, good enough to make you wonder why you haven’t seen her in more South African films. David O’Hara does well, even if the nuances of his Scottish accent are detectable from time to time and Dexter Fletcher’s voice is surprisingly unremarkable, which probably means he did a great job at finding a comfortable middle ground.

It’s interesting to watch Stander after seeing Escape from Pretoria. Both films took place at a similar time, feature prison scenes, prison-forged friendships, jail breaks, anti-apartheid sentiment and even similar ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. Their parallels are so strong that it would actually be surprising to hear that Stander was not a reference for Escape from Pretoria.

While it received some early criticism before its release, Escape from Pretoria had planned to film in South Africa but was forced to relocate to Australia, effectively reinventing Pretoria Central Prison – the primary location for this suspenseful thriller. Escape from Pretoria also featured international actors with Daniel Radcliffe as Tim Jenkin and Ian Hart as Denis Goldberg, but the iffy accent work becomes secondary to spirited performances, nail-biting crime drama and Tim Jenkin’s amazing true story as directed by Francis Annan.

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Luckily for Stander, this crime thriller was able to be shot in South Africa with a predominantly South African cast, which lends itself a degree of realism without the artifice of illusion. Hughes captures the mood of this “paperback thriller” quite deftly, able to inject a coolness factor thanks to the retro throwback and swagger of Thomas Jane. It features one of the most vivid South African riot scenes, in an attempt to capture the chaos and ferocity of Tembisa in the wake of the student protests in Soweto.

Gathering the spontaneity and intensity with a sense of authenticity, it feels much more real than it deserves to be within the context of the movie’s overall commitment to entertainment value. Obviously a turning point for Stander, Hughes powers home the injustice and gravity of the situation so well that it could have influenced, or even inspired scenes from The Bang Bang Club, which arrived 7 years later.

Thomas Jane is reminiscent of Christopher Lambert and his performance as Captain André Stander captures some of the same pure conviction and effortless cool that made Highlander such a cult classic. Whether a mascot for the biographical actioner or a product of it, Stander manages to whip up a rousing, breathless and yet surprisingly authentic depiction of the life and times. The production design and attention to detail in the world-building is enough to impress locals who actually lived through the 1980s, so it should hopefully translate for international audiences too.

Just like the bank robbers, Stander is one of those movies that just seemed to get away from itself. Armed with the potential to stand alongside the likes of an entertainment all-rounder like Argo, it’s closing scenes aim for haunting and tragic but fall short. Conveying Stander’s true sacrifices and the cold hard realities of being a bank robber on the run, Hughes attempts to land the cautionary undertone of Stander’s life’s story but in doing so, steals the ambiguity of his dual cop/robber identity. A sad ending after the gang disband, it cheats film’s exuberant Robin Hood spirit, making you wonder if leaving on a high note may have been a better call.

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