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The steady invasion of auteur genre films into the Cannes Film Festival steps over the line with Zulu, a French policier distinguished only by Forest Whitaker‘s deeply resonant performance as a detective and its South African setting. Were it not for the star power of Whitaker and Orlando Bloom, one might seriously doubt whether this well-built vehicle would have received the honor of closing le festival. French director Jerome Salle, who made the round-the-world adventure films Largo Winch I and II, uses the scars left by apartheid as a political subtext, but it’s not forefronted enough to keep the film from being, at heart, a violent cops vs. drug dealers shoot-em-up whose ancillary sales are likely to outweigh theatrical outside France.
Although the main story is Whitaker’s as chief detective Ali Sokhela of Capetown’s Serious Violent Crime Unit, an inordinate amount of screen time is devoted to the personal tribulations and violent overreactions of his deputy, Brian Epkeen (Bloom), whose loyalty and bravery are matched by his amorous exploits. Fans will not be disappointed at the generous views of his six-pack abs and tattoos but should be warned that his face has been seriously grunged up, presumably for the sake of realism and coolness. The net result is to shift the film’s focus away from Ali’s story of pain and retribution and toward the much less promising ground of anger management and a cliche-ridden manhunt.
The story opens on a truly terrifying black-and-white flashback to 1978 and a little boy screaming at the sight of his father being burned alive, a human torch. Much later in the film, an even more horrifying continuation of the flashback will reveal Ali’s secret and why he seems unable to consummate his desire for a woman who loves him.
Ali’s team includes the tough Brian, who seems perpetually hung over and puzzled about who the woman he wakes up with could be, and the gentle, smiling Dan Fletcher (Conrad Kemp). Together they work on the murder of a rich girl found brutally beaten on the beach. Her death is just the tip of an iceberg that leads them to a sadistic drug ring, evil scientists who escaped punishment after apartheid, and the usual unscrupulous Swiss pharmaceutical company that experiments on both animals and children. The well-paced procedural is interspersed with jarring but exciting chases, shootouts and action scenes, including a highly improbable climax in the desert of Namibia, conveniently reached by all the characters in light aircraft and SUVs.
But surely Salle and his co-writer Julien Rappeneau could have done more with Caryl Ferey‘s novel to bring out the aching sense of lifelong pain that Whitaker exudes every second he’s onscreen. His grave but tender way of relating to his mother and how he protects and esteems his detectives makes him a moral hero, even before he shows his courage under gunfire. With his slow, deliberate South African accent, Whitaker is credible when he quotes Nelson Mandela about turning your enemies into your partners. Although he does his best to make the ending work (involving a sudden, total change of heart and the trashing of all his ideals), its inherent banality delivers a death blow to any viewer expecting narrative redemption in the last reel.
In Brian, Bloom has found a character diametrically opposed to his ethereal elf in Lord of the Rings. He slips into the tough guy role as into a tight leather jacket, one often removed to reveal a muscled masculine torso — no wonder he can’t recognize the women in his bed. He earns sympathy but can’t break out of an overly familiar role.
Denis Rouden‘s cinematography is clear and self-assured throughout but comes into its own in the final desert scenes when the visuals expand in aerial pans over the endless dunes.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition), May 25, 2013.
Production companies: Eskwad, Pathe, Lobster Tree, M6 Films
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Forest Whitaker, Conrad Kemp, Inge Beckmann, Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots, Regardt Van Den Bergh, Randall Majiet, Patrick Lyster, Joelle Kayembe
Director: Jerome Salle
Screenwriters: Jerome Salle, Julien Rappeneau based on a novel by Caryl Ferey
Producer: Richard Grandpierre
Executive producer: Frederic Doniguian
Co-producers: Eric Viart Loeb, Juli Lotter, Romain Le Grand
Director of photography: Denis Rouden
Production designer: Laurent Ott
Costumes: Rae Donnelly
Editor: Stan Collet
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Sales Agent: Pathe International
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