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Stander

(2004) *** R
116 min. Newmarket Films. Director: Bronwen Hughes. Cast: Thomas Jane, David O'Hara, Dexter Fletcher, Deborah Kara Unger, Ashley Taylor.

The South African tale of Andre Stander adds fuel to the old chestnut that truth is stranger than fiction. In the late '70s, Stander—a white policeman driven to the edge by Apartheid-era crackdowns on protesters—forfeited his status as the youngest captain on the Johannesburg Police Force to become an infamous bank robber. With an assist from star Tom Jane (The Punisher), director Bronwen Hughes reforms a career marked by two lightweight Hollywood films (Harriet the Spy, Forces of Nature) with the jaw-dropping story of how Stander redefined career suicide.

Hughes's obvious chance to shine is a full-scale recreation of the 1976 Tembisa student riots (where policemen tell the crowd it must "disintegrate"), but her sensitive approach to characterization and narrative command are manifest throughout the film. Screenwriter Bima Stagg forcefully positions the riots as a turning point in Stander's life. He asks his wife, "Why do the wrong ones keep dying?" and implores her, "I need you to tell me I won't be sucked back into the muck." Peaceful protesters under the gun give way to needless fatalities and Stander's escalating symptoms of a nervous breakdown: a refusal to work further with the Riot Squad; wild, nude dancing in his darkened living room (to the dismay of his wife, played by Deborah Kara Unger of Crash); and, finally, a series of brisk bank robberies. Jane effectively communicates Stander's otherwise unexpressed interior life.

A suddenly relaxed Stander equivocates, "I let off some steam," and resumes investigating crimes, including his own robberies. Eventually, Stander faces—not necessarily in this order—a manhunt, an arrest, a prison break, and the end of the line for the prison gang he comprises of himself and two genial partners. As in Catch Me If You Can, the gentleman thief apparently relies upon the naiveté of his time to pull off his various crimes. Stagg and Hughes flirt with justifying Stander's crimes as civil disobedience; Stander tells his wife, "There's two choices: either become them or live at odds with everything around you." With callous authority and honor among thieves, the filmmakers easily build a rooting interest in the Stander gang. When partner-in-crime Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) experiences a freak-out, Stander assures him, "Lee, this is supposed to be fun." The tension between persistent misfortune and free-wheeling abandon makes Stander a wild and gripping ride.

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