Fresh out of a long stint in jail and ready to start a new life. Isn’t that how the second life of a criminal always starts? Like many stories before it, that’s where How to Steal Two Million starts with its main character. Starring by South African soap star Menzi Ngubane and directed by first timer Charlie Vundla, the film continues the growing trend of well-made action films from the African continent. Just don’t confuse this with anything mainstream, because it’s a down and dirty neo noir that pulses with impoverished desperation and intrigue at every turn. Put simply, it’s the tale of bad people doing bad things, and doing it with some style.
Jack is the freshly released con. Having just finished up a stretch for a deal that went sour, Jack is looking toward a brighter future and the start of his own construction business. But when banks scoff at his situation and refuse to loan him the necessary funds, he turns to an old criminal ally who sets him up with one last big job that will pay enough to set him free. The only problem is that this partner, Twala, is not to be trusted. He’s taken Jack’s girl while he was away and worst of all, his diabolical plan includes robbing someone very close and very dangerous.
Not to sound like master of the obvious, but it’s easy to understand why it all goes wrong from here. The how of the unravelling is far more interesting, as rookie director Vundla fills his movie with stylish references to classic noir films of old while injecting the spirit of post-apartheid Johannesburg into the narrative. The desperation of Jack is palpable and the lines between good and evil are lost in a mess of deception. In the end, it’s less about that and more about who will survive, because we the audience can easily come to terms with the bad nature of just about everyone on screen. But still, we root for Jack despite his faults, and hope that he will make it out alive. Why? Because of the magnetic presence of Ngubane. His performance anchors the entire film and breathes life into the quieter moments. He maintains an intensity and vulnerability in his character that form a balance found in many classic lovable, flawed anti-heroes. And lets just say, without saying too much, that he kicks ass when ass-kicking is called for.
If it accomplishes nothing else, How to Steal Two Million should put both Ngubane and Vundla on the map. These guys are the real deal. One with a captivating performance and the other with a careful hand behind the camera and a sense for efficient narrative. In and out in 109 minutes, How to Steal Two Millions takes but moments to get going then never really lets up. It’s a race to see who will live and who will die, and who might actually get away with the money. And in the end, it pays off brilliantly.
The Upside: Ngubane provides the performance, Vundla shows a scholarly approach to using a classic noir template to tell a personal, local story.
The Downside: It’s a grim, slow starter, but it ultimately gets going and delivers a very satisfying narrative arc (and one hell of a conclusion).