Chances are you've never heard of South African Andre Stander, but his story is a cracker. In the late 1970s, Stander robbed 46 banks in the Johannesburg area -- 26 of them while a police captain. His crime spree was so brazen -- he once robbed the same bank twice in one day -- that he became a celebrity bandit.
Bronwen Hughes opens her bio-pic Stander with aerial photography reminding us of South Africa's brutal contradictions: We soar above the country's rich natural beauty marked by preserves of opulence and vast stretches of slums. Stander's story unfolds against the backdrop of the country's despicable racial policies coming finally to a boil.
Capt. Andre Stander (Thomas Jane) is on the career fast track, but when we meet him -- driving recklessly to his second wedding to his first wife -- he's already disaffected. Sent to quell an impending riot in the Tembisa black slums -- the tension-fraught representation of which is the film's best set piece -- Stander cracks. Afterward, his bank robbing begins almost thoughtlessly: He asks for money, walks calmly away, and even discards the money. The charge is in the act, defying the system, and it proves addictive.
Stander is part gritty crime thriller, part character study and, very tenuously, an indictment of apartheid. The film implies that the amoral national policies that Stander is charged to uphold engender his corruption, particularly when the system is rupturing. Hence, Stander carries a heavier burden than most run-of-the-mill heist flicks. The story's veracity lends the film some needed heft; Hughes mostly restricts the politics to background noise, often letting the well-chosen locations simply speak for themselves.
But ultimately Stander remains too enigmatic (he never explains himself) -- and the film never answers whether Stander is a product of his country's unrest or just a troubled, if colorful soul acting contemporaneously. And such intriguing theories fall by the wayside in the film's second half, when the robbing begins in earnest; whatever moral choices Stander is struggling with are subsumed in a montage of getaway screeches typical of any other crime thriller. And at its conclusion, when Hughes tries to shift Stander's long dark night of the soul back into an ironic black-white metaphor, it feels artificial.
Nonetheless, Stander represents remarkable improvement for both director Hughes -- whose last two films were the flimsy romantic comedies Woman on Top and Forces of Nature -- and actor Jane, last seen in the summer dud The Punisher. Hughes may have been overly ambitious in aiming for a society-is-crime treatise, particularly in relating a story with such a taciturn protagonist, but Stander is one fascinating bank robber. In English and Afrikaans with subtitles.