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Wednesday, September 29, 2010


With Rapulana Seiphemo giving a deftly controlled performance in the lead role of South African crime lord Lucky Kunene, the fact-based GANGSTER'S PARADISE: JERUSALEMA (2008) isn't the sadistically violent crime thriller I was expecting.  Instead of killing his way to success, university dropout Lucky gets there by using his keen business acumen against South Africa's crooked slumlords.

Not to say that the film isn't violent, because everyday life in Lucky's world can be deadly.  We join him and his best friend Zakes as kids under the unsavory influence of their hood-hero Nazareth (Jeffrey Zekele), who teaches them, among other things, how to carjack for a living.  These early scenes--some of which, unlike the rest of the film, are quite funny--reveal Lucky as a sensitive boy who cares for his family and wants to better himself by earning his way through college.  But the lure of easy money is too strong, and before long he and Zakes buy guns and are stealing cars and robbing stores. 

When Nazareth watches Michael Mann's HEAT on television one day, he gets the idea to duplicate that film's armored car robbery in the first overtly violent sequence, with the two shocked boys witnessing senseless death firsthand.  Later, their criminal mentor stages a "smash-and-grab" store robbery that results in a bullet-riddled bloodbath when scores of cops and security guards show up with guns blazing.  As in later action scenes, this shootout isn't designed as a flamboyantly cinematic setpiece like the ones in HEAT or SCARFACE, but is staged in a matter-of-fact style that makes it seem more realistic.

Lucky flees Soweto to crime-infested "Jo'burg" as a hunted fugitive, where we rejoin him ten years later driving a cab.  When he's almost killed by rival cabbies whose territory he's encroached on, Lucky decides to use his brains to get ahead.  That's when he hatches a scheme to force local slumlords out of their own buildings along with the drug dealers and hookers infesting them, and start collecting all that rent money himself.  Pretending to side with the tenants, he's hailed as a Robin Hood by the public while the police, led by Detective Swart (Robert Hobbs), make it their business to bring him down in any way necessary.  Lucky also makes an enemy in local drug kingpin Ngu, who turns one of Lucky's inside men against him and sets him up for the kill. 

The narrative style is lean and uncluttered as is the direction by Ralph Ziman (HEARTS AND MINDS, THE ZOOKEEPER), who also scripted.  When death comes, it's messy but quick--Ziman doesn't linger over scenes of sadism for its own sake.  Lucky himself would rather scheme his way out of dicey situations and rarely takes the violent route, trying instead to bend the law to his own uses while flaunting his saintly image in the eyes of his tenants.  Still, his ongoing clash with drug dealer Ngu inevitably leads to all-out warfare with a blazing shootout in a nightclub coming as one of the film's action highlights.

Seiphemo is impressive as Lucky Kunene, whom we tend to side with since he lacks the cold-hearted cruelty of the usual screen criminal.  Jeffrey Zekele's Nazareth exudes cool efficiency as a killer who does Lucky's dirty work, whether pushing unwanted tenants through windows when they refuse to leave by the door, or impulsively executing an ousted slumlord and his lawyer for mouthing off to Lucky.  Other performances of note include Ronnie Nyakale as loyal friend Zakes, Robert Hobbs as the dogged Detective Swart, and the lovely Shelley Meskin as Leah, a wealthy white woman who becomes Lucky's lover after he helps her out of a jam. 

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound with English subtitles.  Extras include a commentary track with director Ziman, composer Alan Lazar, and actor Jaffa Mamabolo (young Lucky), plus deleted scenes and a trailer. 

While containing much of the same visceral excitement of other crime flicks, GANGSTER'S PARADISE: JERUSALEMA is more interesting as a solid and suspenseful character piece than a lurid bullet ballet--somehow, it manages to avoid being anywhere near as sordid and downbeat as it could've turned out.  But even if you demand your gangster films dripping with gooey GOODFELLAS goodness, you should find plenty to like here.

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