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Daylight robbery
A region 2 DVD review of STANDER by Slarek
 
"If you go fast enough, you can't see where you've come from."
Alan Heyl to Andre Stander

 

It is said that truth is stranger than fiction. It isn't – how could it be? Bizarre facts often appear more peculiar than fiction simply because they actually happened. It's that element that gives 'based on a true story' films their own unique appeal, though always lurking at the back of my mind when watching them is the thorny issue of how much much the truth has been massaged for dramatic effect. I mean, try this on for size. Andre Stander is a captain in the Robbery and Homicide Division of the Johannesburg police in 1970s Apartheid South Africa. One day he decides to rob a bank, seemingly just to see if he can get away with it, which he does. He doesn't leave it at just one and takes to robbing banks in his lunch hour and then returning to the scene of the crime a few hours later as the investigating officer. A bit far fetched, huh? Except it's all true. Indeed, the story of Captain Andre Stander is such an extraordinary and at times outlandish one that a movie adaptation requires very little embellishment to shape it into a smart and highly engaging crime movie.

Given that these events occurred almost three decades ago, it's surprising that it's taken so long for a movie adaptation to appear, and given the quality of the finished result, why it seems to have reached such a relatively small audience. But then it's set in South Africa rather than Los Angeles, and Stander himself is played not by Tom Cruise but Thomas Jane. Thomas who? Exactly. Jane has done his fair share of interesting work, but his name just doesn't have the pulling power to drag a star-struck public into the cinemas. Which is a shame, because he's bloody great here, physically imposing when required (at one point angrily taking down two of his colleagues in one furious leap), but at his most impressive when stripped of dialogue and action and working solely through facial expression and body language. Most of all he communicates the enigmatic charm of a character who caught the imagination of the public to such a degree that he took on the aura of a folk hero, being particularly cherished by those who saw his activities as sticking it to a system they despised.

Although it was never firmly established why Stander first turned to crime, director Bronwen Hughes has gone with Stander's own claim, that that it was the indirect result of participating in a savage crackdown on a township demonstration. A pivotal moment for Stander, this protest and its violent aftermath are electrifyingly staged, shot with documentary realism and a genuine sense that the ruling authority, despite having the guns and the dogs and the clubs, has long since lost the moral battle. Every shot and edit counts here, the camera repeatedly returning to Stander's face as his uncertainty and apprehension give way to a disbelief at what he realises is unfolding. The shooting that so haunts him happens almost by accident, a misreading of a threat that results in the death of an innocent, a moment that plays against expectations when Stander, instead of throwing down his gun in horror, then frenziedly opens fire at everything that moves.

Removed from riot duty at his own request, Stander's relationship with his wife and his father, himself a retired police official of some standing, begins to deteriorate, as does his enthusiasm for a job with which he has become increasingly disillusioned. "A white man could get away with anything today!" he barks at the desk officer in an almost empty police station, and then goes on to prove it by marching to a nearby bank and holding it up. So shaken is he by what he has done that he immediately disposes of the money by giving it to a young roadside paperboy, and the myth of his modern-day Robin Hood status is born. What starts as an impulsive action soon becomes an addiction, his confidence growing with each successful heist, not least because he is wise to every aspect of the investigation. When one teller seems to recognise him on his return to the bank in his official capacity, he makes a joke of the suggestion and it is laughed off by all concerned. And why not? The very idea of a police captain being the man behind the robberies is absurd enough, but to suggest that he would then return to the bank to interview the witnesses borders on the ridiculous. But that's how it happened. Whatever else you might think about Andre Stander, he clearly had the biggest balls in the force.

The effect of all this on Stander is to reinvigorate him, restoring his good humour and firing up his sexual desire. He's clearly set for a fall and it happens when he is caught by his own partner. "What took you so long?" he asks. "We're not as good as you" is the humble response.* It is in jail that Stander meets and befriends future partners in crime Alan Heyl and Lee McCall (David O'Hara and Dexter Fletcher respectively, both on fine form). He escapes with McCall and then, in an extraordinarily reckless move that became typical of the man, returns to the prison to fulfil a promise and spring Heyl.** As a gang they go back to robbing banks, increasingly upping the ante, at one point even goading the task force set up to catch them by robbing a bank located next door to their command centre.***

Eventually, inevitably, it comes to an end, but even here the true story provides its own series of resolutions that could have been written for the movie, and are, minor poetic licence aside, once again historically on the nose. It's a remarkable tale, told with energy, pace and inventiveness in all departments. We may not really get to know Stander as well as we'd like, but he remains a compelling centrepiece in a film that deserves to find a far wider market than it has, and establishes director Hughes, previously responsible for the lightweight romantic comedy Forces of Nature, as a talent to be reckoned with. And in an industry still under largely male control, its rather nice to see a woman beating the men at their own game.

sound and vision

Framed 1.77:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a solid transfer, whose grain, sometimes high contrast and slightly off-kilter colour scheme were all there in the cinema and should not be seen as transfer quirks. Sharpness is fine, black levels are strong and detail even in the darker scenes.

The 5.1 soundtrack, when cranked up, is very nice, with an effective and purposeful use of the surrounds, especially in the riot scene, which is discussed in this respect on the commentary track. As a mix this is impressive without ever showing off for the sake of it, with even the LFE channel kicking in just when it feels right, emphasising the noise and industry of the prison factory, and so forth.

extra features

Good commentary tracks are DVD gold, and this is a very good commentary. Director Bronwen Hughes supplies a wealth on information on the filming, the real Andre Stander, the locations and the actors, and having a particular soft spot for – believe it or not – Dexter Fletcher. Especially fascinating are the stories about shooting on the locations in which key incidents actually occurred, including the prison in which Stander, Heyl and McCall served time, bringing Hughes into contact with people who knew Stander and were witness to the story being told, which itself helped reshape the script. The detail on the filming of riot scene was especially welcome.

The trailer (0:50) is non-anamorphic widescreen is a dialogue-free sell and in OK if not exactly sparkling condition.

The Deleted Beach Scene (3:21) is referred to by Hughes in the commentary and an engaging inclusion. It's non-anamorphic widescreen.

Finally there is Anatomy of a Scene (24:41), an episode of the fine Sundance Channel series in which film-makers discuss the shooting and editing of a key scene from a selected film. Unsurprisingly and pleasingly, the sequence under examination here is the township riot, which is deconstructed in useful detail. Particularly interesting is the side-by-side comparison with archive news footage of township demonstrations and the police reaction to them. The picture here is a mixture of 4:3 and non-anamorphic widescreen.

summary

Stander is a captivating retelling of a remarkable true story, an engaging character study, a first rate crime/caper movie and even at times a nifty action film. The pace rarely drops, and the politics of the situation are intriguingly woven into the story, including a most unexpected attempt at redemption by the lead character. But most of all it deserves to find a far greater audience than it seems to have reached to date, and if you didn't catch it on its disappointingly limited cinema run then I urge to hunt out the DVD, which looks and sounds good and has some very decent extras. Stick it on your Christmas list – you won't be sorry.



* In a rare deviation from the facts, Stander is caught through a combination of luck and deduction, whereas in truth he admitted his crimes to his partner and tried to get him to join him, only to have his confession reported to his superiors.

** Again a true story, with the post-escape events playing out exactly as they did in real life.

*** The real bank was downstairs from the task force rather than next door, but yet again, they really did rob it under the noses of th
e men who were looking for them.

Stander

Canada / Germany / South Africa / UK 2003
107 mins
director
Bronwen Hughes
starring
Thomas Jane
Ashley Taylor
David O'Hara
Dexter Fletcher
Deborah Kara Unger
Marius Weyers
At Botha

DVD details
region 2
video
1.77:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hard of hearing
extras
Directors' commentary
Trailer
Deleted scene
Anatomy of a scene
distributor
Momentum
release date
Out now
review posted
12 December 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews