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by Jay Seaver

"Kind of slam-bang, but no slam-dunk."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Slam-Bang" is, as the director pointed out several times during the introduction and Q&A, a notable movie for being a bit of pulp action made independently in South Africa. It is apparently very difficult to get a film made there at all, and what limited funding is available apparently goes toward issue-oriented dramas. Notable doesn't necessarily mean good, unfortunately, but you need the notable movies to build a foundation.

(Yes, I recognize that summer 2009 is a bit of an odd time to say that they don't make action in South Africa, with the spiffy-looking District 9 about to be released. That, however, is clearly the beneficiary of some serious outside investment, as opposed to a home-grown effort like Slam-Bang.)

The film opens like many crime movies do, with a decent-enough but easily pushed around guy like George Bennon (Roland Gaspar). George handles IT in a small (and apparently legitimate) business connected to crime boss Mr. G (Jan de Beer); and another gangster, "The Chinaman", wants some information off G's computer (and, yes, his phone voice is an ugly stereotype, right down to calling George "lound-eye"). Get it, George is told, or girlfriend Karen (Jackie Rens) dies. And don't call the cops. Or tell her. She, of course, is already unhappy about George's lack of attention, and probably really wouldn't like it if she found out the only way to get Geroge into the house was to seduce the gangster's wife Maddy (Paula Raposo). Of course, things go wrong: George's contact The Turk (Malcolm Ferreira) seems cool enough, but G has discovered the theft earlier than might hope, and has sent a number of killers, including Isabella (Nicole Smart), after them.

Pretty standard crime-movie material, and filmmaker Mark Lebanon's main failing here is that he and his cast don't ornament that framework with particularly memorable stories and characters. George is a bland, slightly nebbishy everyman; Karen is fed up and impatient as movie girlfriends often are; The Turk is a fat guy who stops for take-out on his way to jobs. Isabella and her boyfriend Tony (Brendon Kern) are good-looking sociopaths. Everyone bounces off each other in a fairly standard way, and the story never has a real "ha! that was unexpected and clever" moment.

What it does have is blood and guts, in the quantities more closely associated with horror movies than film noir. There's no rule saying you can't have that amount of gore in this sort of movie - it's a large component of Italy's giallo tradition, after all. Lebanon doesn't have the giallo masters' style, though, and his generous bloodletting is too matter-of-fact to be enjoyably lurid or a shocking display of the characters' viciousness. Even when he makes a stab at that, it's handled awkwardly; I would find myself look at scenes clinically, thinking "did you really need to go as far as the dead kids or ripped-out intestines to make your point?" Somewhere around halfway through the movie, it shifts from thrills to ugliness.

If that's what Lebanon is going for, he hits the target fairly square. The gore work is well done, and he does stage a nifty bit of action or two. In many cases, he seems to be hobbled by his limited resources - the action takes place in whichever generic spaces he could get permission to film, the actors get their lines out but don't create especially memorable characters. There's glimmers of skill to be found, but they don't add up to a very good movie.

They are enough to be something to build on, though. I can't recommend "Slam-Bang" in a vacuum, but I hope Lebanon and other South African filmmakers keep plugging away at making local genre movies, no doubt a tough sell in an English-speaking country which can easily import slick Hollywood movies. A country's cinema needs its matinees and midnights to go along with its masterpieces.

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originally posted: 08/05/09 14:12:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Mark Lebenon

Written by
  Mark Lebenon

  Roland Gaspar
  Malcolm Ferreira
  Nicole Smart
  Shaun Myburg

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