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    Blithe and bonny, but no Clyde

    "Stander" tries to paint its cop-turned-crook story with a little anti-apartheid rebel glory, but it's really just a soulless caper flick.


    Like fusion cuisine, the fusion of film genres (here, vˇritˇ social-consciousness film and glossy caper flick) is a high-risk / high-reward endeavor in which the outcome may be uncertain, but there is redeeming honor in the courage and imagination of the attempt. Honor also lies in recovering the contributions of people who participated in the hard-won success of a just social cause, but did not play a leadership role and are forgotten in history and popular imagination. Sadly, "Stander," a cinematic interpretation of a real-life cop turned bank robber in apartheid-era South Africa, forfeits all honor by its meretricious use of anti-apartheid politics.

    Directed by: Bronwen Hughes.
    Written by: Bima Stagg.
    Cast: Thomas Jane, Dexter Fletcher, Deborah Kara Unger, Marius Weyers, Ashleigh Taylor.
    Cinematography: Jess Hall.
    Edited by: Robert Ivison.

    Related links: Official site
    The early portion telegraphs promise with a well-rendered depiction of a 1976 student-led shantytown demonstration which becomes an unprovoked, police-perpetrated massacre. Participating in the massacre, and killing one of the demonstration's leaders, is the titular Johannesburg Captain Andre Stander (Thomas Jane), a man of brilliant prospects, good family, and frequent nudity. Stander has immediate misgivings about his conduct and the role of police, as signified by his spontaneous beating of some flip subordinates and subsequent career-killing request to be removed from riot duty.

    Thence begins a steepening descent from earnest political-awakening film to criminal eye for the cop guy glamour shoot, replete with slow-motion takes of Stander in full mid-'70s sartorial splendor. The shift from social text to so-cool textiles and rote heist-glorification is abrupt, occurring after Stander robs his first bank shortly after the massacre. The film suggests a causal connection between the unpremeditated crime and Stander's disillusionment, but does not go to pains to develop the connection (rather, by way of character development, the audience is treated to a vintage '80s thriller-style sex scene between Stander and wife).

    From this point on, earnestness is dropped so that the motif of frolicsome misbehavin' (cue catchy '70s tunes here) has suitable space to entertain. Stander robs bank after bank, evading identification by virtue of disguise and being the least likely suspect. Then he is caught in the usual movie manner and sentenced to years of hard labor. Does Stander undergo further politicization in prison? Don't ask, because the film will not answer now that it is in full and near-permanent fast-edit excitement mode. What's important is that Stander makes some buddies, and they all break out of prison so that more banks can be dashingly robbed. The social and political context skillfully evoked by the massacre scene has evaporated, to be invoked only in fig-leaf form to confer a spurious lefty legitimacy on the good times.

    Pouring its period-detail plaster into the root-for-the-criminals cast of "Catch Me if You Can" and "Goodfellas," "Stander" fails in one respect because, even taken merely as a caper movie, its narrative surface is wrapped in a chain of linked clichˇs — heady heist success, dissension, need-of-a-good-woman, guilt-unburdening, almost-capture, father-son reconciliation, and so on. But mostly "Stander" fails because its core proves so hollow. The hollowness is amplified manyfold by the infrequent, ludicrous, threepenny efforts (two-bit is too generous) to inflect Stander's exploits — as he drives his yellow Porsche and buys a mansion and yacht with cash — with anti-apartheid political hue. As thousands sacrifice their lives and freedom to end the racialist regime, Stander does his part by undermining authority through gamboling from bank job to bank job, thereby precipitating "chaos in the system." Never mind that, unlike his U.S. counterparts, the Weathermen, Stander and his accomplices keep their proceeds and live phat.

    Nonetheless, even despite the obvious problems with portraying Stander as some sort of Bonnie and Clyde folk antihero, had the filmmakers opted to explicate Stander's political motivations in more than mere throwaway lines, or perhaps critiqued them as shallow rationalizing, some credibility would have been established. As the film stands, however, more attention is paid to Stander's celebrity status than the basis of his iconoclastic folk appeal, which will permit astute future cultural scholars to easily identify this film as a product of the E! school of filmmaking. However this film is marketed, Stander's story crosses the projector's backlight not for the sake of bringing an uncelebrated crusader's life to light, nor for the sake of portraying an inspiring (white, of course) rebel in a dark regime. We know him now because, under the film industry's assumption that we are a star-gazing culture, the jump from obscurity to notoriety is presumed to be fascinating in itself — especially if the subject has an outrˇ lifestyle which can be hiply scored and stylized.

    AUGUST 9, 2004

    Reader comments on Stander:

  • stunning   from Nick, Feb 6, 2006
  • Tom Jane   from Chady, Jan 23, 2007

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