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Zulu (2013)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/27/13 12:48:09

"An extremely Lethal Weapon from South Africa."
3 stars (Average)

That "Zulu" is basically a mismatched-cop movie is not something that should be held against it; that's a field-tested template which could prove a little more interesting than usual given this film's South African setting. There's usually something in those movies, though, that keeps them from being just a battle between cops as out of control as their quarries, and this one maybe could use a little bit more of that, because it is frequently very grim indeed.

The black portion of the investigating team is Captain Ali Sokhela (Forest Whitaker), a Cape Town detective who still has one foot in the townships where his father was set on fire thirty-five years ago. He's teamed with Dan Fletcher (Conrad Kemp), a likable family man, and Brian Epkeen (Orlando Bloom), a divorced alcoholic, on a murder case - the sort where the white victim comes from a prominent family but traces of a drug more common to poor black neighborhoods are found in her system. So Ali's superiors would like a tidy solution, even if that's decidedly not what the detectives uncover.

No, there's a conspiracy whose roots reach back to the apartheid era. There's a sort of paranoid grandeur to it - the plot is the sort of thing I imagine South African conspiracy theorists see around every corner - although it's not necessarily completely specific to that place: An audience in any country where economic imbalances still linger as the result of past policies can identify some with what's going on here, even if the details are local or push a police story toward a larger thriller or even a horror movie.

It's certainly at times bloody enough for that sort of movie. Aside from the gruesome nature of the murder, it's not very long before a normal procedural scene erupts into shocking violence, and as the movie goes on, there's a fair amount of torture and rather vicious fighting still to come. It's not just the physical action that may cause the audience to squirm, though; screenwriter/director Jérôme Salle (working from a novel by Caryl Ferey) seems to take great pride in kicking characters when they are down and making a point of reinforcing their poor fortune right to the edge of grim self-parody. It's the sort of thing that can trigger contradictory emotions, as the sustained cruelty can seem artificial but the audience knows that anything going the heroes' way would feel like them getting off easy.

That doesn't happen, and to be fair, Salle doesn't just wallow in very serious misery. The explosively violent scene mentioned, for instance, is actually quite well-staged and thrilling beyond the initial shock of how quickly a bunch of weapons come out and get used; the action work is quick and clear throughout, and he jumps between characters. It sometimes seems like certain pieces of the story interest him much more than others - the villains are not nearly as memorable as one might like, and some new elements are awkwardly introduced as they are needed - but he delivers the sort of no-messing-around genre action audiences have come to expect from the current crop of French mainstream directors.

He and his cast do all right working in English, although I can't say how well Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom do in Zulu and Afrikaans when the situation calls for it. They both play their parts in safely intense ways, Whitaker intensely sorrowful and Bloom with a chip on his shoulder. Whitaker does light up a bit when acting against the actress playing Ali's mother; those aren't perfectly played scenes, but there's a sweetness to those scenes that's in direct contrast to the rest of the movie. There's an easy charm to Conrad Kemp, though, whether playing against Whitaker and Bloom or Tinarie van Wyk Loots as Dan's wife.

Salle, his cast, and crew put together a movie that looks and sounds quite nice; "Zulu" wouldn't look out of place in a mainstream multiplex, seeing as it has a lot of "Lethal Weapon" in its DNA. It could maybe do with a bit more, to get the audience excited about what comes next when the darkness is particularly unrelenting.

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