Six years and a dozen films later, with the one-two punch of "The Punisher" and "Stander," Jane has positioned himself both as a legitimate go-to guy for Hollywood actioners and as a nuanced actor for character-driven dramas. It's a pair of roles that are at once superficially similar yet vastly different: In the first, he portrays grizzled FBI agent Frank Castle, who takes the law into his own hands when his entire family is murdered; in "Stander," he plays affable real-life folk hero Andre Stander, a police officer who, revolted by his own participation in a student uprising, ends up on the wrong side of the law and in a gang of bank robbers that charms its way into the hearts of the South African people.
Set during Apartheid in 1976, the film, which is based on a real-life figure as familiar in South Africa as Butch Cassidy is in the States, starkly contrasts both thematically and stylistically from director Bronwen Hughes' previous project, the slick romantic comedy "Forces of Nature," starring Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock. Colored largely in browns, "Stander" is as gritty and intimate as its subject matter, and the pivotal early 10-minute scene of the Tembisa uprising marks the apex of the movie's immersive visual style. Using a handheld camera that jostles among the protestors, the episode is recorded with the energy radiating from the crowd. The volatile situation is at first characterized by waiting, the atmosphere crackling with tension as the rioters and police stare each other down, wondering what the other is going to do next, before erupting into escalating violence. Amid the chaos, Stander kills an unarmed man. The incident actuates his request to be relieved as captain--he had been the youngest one on the Johannesburg force--as well as a bank-robbing spree.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, Stander is motivated less by greed than a stick-it-to-the-man attitude that resonates with the larger population. The tone shifts somewhat unevenly in the second act from period epic to a caper as he and later his gang experience growing notoriety to the point where one victim brags, "We've been robbed by Andre Stander!" Meanwhile, he's embarrassing the police, whose growing desperation only emboldens Stander's increasingly brazen acts. These scenes are a lot of fun, but eventually the story runs out of steam and culminates with a disappointingly anticlimactic coda. Still, Jane exhibits real texture here, even without the chiseled abs and massive pipes he developed for "The Punisher." In a role virtually devoid of preachy moralizing--he embarks on his first offense wordlessly--Jane's accent is spot-on, at least to these American ears, due to three months of work on it. And he at once captures the appeal of the celebrity outlaw--not to mention looks great in the '70s-era wardrobe--and the gravity of a man wrestling with his conscience in an environment of moral degeneracy. Starring Thomas Jane, Dexter Fletcher, David Patrick O'Hara, Deborah Kara Unger, Marius Weyers and Ashley Taylor. Directed by Bronwen Huges. Written by Bima Stagg and Bronwen Hughes. Produced by Julia Verdin, Martin F. Katz and Chris Roland. A Newmarket release. Crime drama. Rated R for violence, language, some sexuality and nudity. Running time: 111 min