A Policeman Turns Against Apartheid and Becomes a Bank-Robbing Folk Hero
New York Times August 6, 2004
By Stephen Holden
After the Holocaust, racial apartheid in South Africa may be the 20th-century curse most people would identify as unequivocally evil. And the first half hour of "Stander," which tells the true story of Andre Stander (Tom Jane), the notorious Johannesburg police captain who turned against a system he found repugnant, plays like a smoothly executed if predictable drama of one man's heroic rebellion.
But just when you begin to relax and wait for the usual buttons to be pushed, "Stander" swerves in a more uncertain direction. The issue of apartheid recedes, and the film, which opens today in New York, becomes an unsettling character study camouflaged as a heist movie. The further the volatile title character evolves into a swaggering self-styled Robin Hood, the more his nobility begins to tarnish. By the end of the film, his demons have taken over, and he has become a compulsively self-destructive outlaw addicted to flouting authority.
Much of the film's considerable power lies in Mr. Jane's raw physical dynamism. The blond, brawny actor radiates a sweaty super-masculinity that is as charismatic as it is unaffected and the opposite of the sort of macho parody embodied by Vin Diesel. His screen presence suggests the younger Nick Nolte, minus Mr. Nolte's undertone of disheveled, hipsterish cool. And his scenes with Deborah Kara Unger, who plays his fiery, long-suffering wife, Bekkie, crackle with animal heat.
The story begins in 1976, when Stander, the youngest police captain in the history of Johannesburg, commands the front lines of the riot patrol during a protest march in Soweto that lurches out of control. As tear gas canisters are launched and the police are pelted with rocks, a helicopter fires on the marchers, and what began as a tense, nonviolent showdown quickly dissolves into a melee, during which Stander shoots and kills a young, unarmed black man.
This extended riot sequence is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking in which the marchers' boiling emotions and the contempt and fear of the police detonate into an inevitable explosion that plays itself out disastrously. Observing the violence from every angle, the all-engulfing sequence makes you a detached observer and vulnerable participant at the same time.
Guilt-ridden and disgusted with himself after the killing, Stander, who had been a discreetly mute opponent of apartheid, refuses to serve any more time on riot duty and is warned that his meteoric career is in jeopardy. Sitting alone at police headquarters while his colleagues are out quashing rebellion in the townships, he realizes they are so preoccupied with enforcing apartheid that a white man could get away with any crime. And in a spirit of crazy bravado and hatred of the system, he sets out to prove it.
Wearing a thin disguise, he robs a Johannesburg bank and walks away with the money. Soon after, he robs another without even donning a wig. When called to lead the investigation, he laughs at the confused teller who declares that the robber looked just like him. But once Stander has proved his point, he can't stop robbing banks. The cat-and-mouse game he plays with the police eventually leads to his arrest, and he is sentenced to 32 years in prison. After serving only a short time, he and two fellow inmates, Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher) and Alan Heyl (David Patrick O'Hara), escape and immediately embark on a manic bank-robbing spree that makes fools of the police while turning the Stander Gang, as it's called, into Bonnie-and-Clyde-like folk heroes.
"Stander," directed by Bronwen Hughes from a screenplay by Bima Stagg, loses some its bearings once it turns into a caper movie. The movie hardly bothers to explain the mechanics of the jailbreak or of the robberies themselves, which take place in a flurry of disguises and stickups that has a Keystone Kops flavor. And as the gang becomes increasingly reckless and Stander indulges in an act of self-punishing masochism, he seems increasingly unhinged. If the movie peters out in a sad, ambivalent afterword, at least it is not so foolish as to pretend that playing Robin Hood can go on forever.
"Stander" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has violence, sexual situations and strong language.
Directed by Bronwen Hughes; written by Bima Stagg, based on his story; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Robert Ivison; music by the Free Association; produced by Julia Verdin, Martin F. Katz and Chris Roland; released by Newmarket Films. Running time: 111 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Tom Jane (Andre Stander), Dexter Fletcher (Lee McCall), David Patrick O'Hara (Allan Heyl), Deborah Kara Unger (Bekkie Stander), Marius Weyers (General Stander) and Ashley Taylor (Cor Van Deventer).