Suppose for a second you were a white cop in late ‘70s – early ‘80s Johannesburg, South Africa. Further, speculate that you’d become increasingly discontented with the way the police force operates following your experiences in putting down black rioters. What would be the best way for you to express your disgust, while at the same time hitting the powers that be where it hurts?
If your name is Andre Stander, you start by robbing banks.
I’ll be the first to admit that hearing the phrase, “from the director of ‘Forces of Nature’ and ‘Harriet the Spy’” didn’t exactly make me tingle in anticipation of Bronwen Hughes’ third feature, “Stander.” I’m also the first to admit I was wrong. “Stander” is a nifty little heist film featuring Thomas Jane (“Deep Blue Sea,” the upcoming “Punisher”) as Captain Andre Stander, who performed a series of daylight bank robberies in the early 1980’s (sometimes hitting several within hours of each other) while still in the employ of the South African Police Service. In fact, he would often return to the scene of the crime as one of the investigating officers. This, as you can imagine, tended to cause some confusion among bank employees.
The outlandish nature of the crimes is made that much more audacious by the fact that Stander’s story is true. He was sentence to 32 years in prison, but broke out after two years with future “Stander Gang” member Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher) and actually returned to break out another accomplice, Allan Heyl (David Patrick O’Hara). The gang would go on to rob up to five banks in one day, fooling the police through a series of elaborate costume changes and brazen tactics (including robbing a bank situated right next to the office housing the task force assigned to apprehend the gang) and becoming South African cult heroes.
Hughes has chosen not to delve too deeply into the specifics of each crime, choosing to focus instead on the Gang’s sartorial elegance and presenting the capers in a stylish montage. At times, the film feels rushed, betraying Hughes’ need to get Stander’s story across in just under two hours. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded some more examination into the logistics of certain heists, as well as into the character of Stander himself. His rationale for embarking on his crime spree is understandable, if somewhat shallow, and his motivations for a late attempt at reconciliation are hazy at best.
But these are minor complaints, and ones that certainly can’t be laid at the feet of Thomas Jane, who impresses us with his believable portrayal (and South African accent). But then, the entire cast is strong – especially Deborah Unger as Stander’s long-suffering wife Bekkie, and Marius Weyers as Stander’s father. Hughes and company also went to great lengths to secure accurate locations and props, right down to the township locales.
If this wasn’t a true story, you’d find yourself rolling your eyes at the ridiculous risks the main character takes, and the apparent ease with which he thwarts danger. That all the events filmed actually took place make “Stander” a highly entertaining ride.
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