Fantastic Fest 2011: HOW TO STEAL 2 MILLION Review

Peter Martin, Managing Editor


Noir is a loaded term. Noir = doomed characters (hard-bitten heroes, cold-hearted villains, deadly femme fatales) + black and white imagery awash in shadows. In heart and soul, Charlie Vundla's How to Steal 2 Million * is pure noir, the tale of a freshly-paroled convict named Jack (Menzi Ngubane) who finds that life on the outside isn't so sweet anymore.

Jack, a born thief, kept his word and didn't roll over on his partner (and former best friend) Twala. Now he's determined to go straight and start his own legitimate business. Twala, however, has other plans in mind; he needs Jack's help to pull off a million-dollar burglary. Jack initially resists, but the job market is not exactly welcoming to felons. Jack is also contending with the animosity left over from his fall-out with ex-girlfriend Kim, who left him and married Twala while jack was still in prison. (Talk about awkward reunions!) He also embarks on a tentative relationship with Olive, a curvaceous pickpocket he picks up in a bar after she's lifted another man's wallet.

As in all true film noir, Jack is magnetically attracted to trouble, so naturally he ends up accepting Twala's job offer -- he has no choice -- only to learn that the wealthy target is Twala's father. And Twala needs the job to go down right away because his voracious loan shark is overdue for feeding.

With all the elements in place, we know it's unevitable that, during the robbery, Things Will Go Wrong and Blood Will Be Spilled. Though the setting in Johannesburg, South Africa is fresh and unfamiliar (for most people), I'm hard-pressed to say that there's much that's new or different about the plot or the characters. And, unfortunately, the film doesn't meet expectations for what a film noir should look like; the look is closer to daytime television, perhaps a reflection of the limited resources available to the filmmakers.

Be that as it may, How to Steal 2 Million features really good storytelling and direction. It's not the type of "show off" direction that calls attention to itself, but solid work that serves the material well. Vundla, who also wrote the script, injects occasional wisecracks and situational humor, but for the most part, this is a serious take on a doomed character who is waging a losing battle against his long-established criminal inclinations.

Menzi Ngubane, who is well-known in South Africa as a television star, makes a dynamic leading man. While some of the other performances are uneven, Ngubane is rock-solid as Jack, a weary soul who's barely out of prison before he's breaking his own vow of non-violence; he can't even get out of a parking space without unleashing primal rage in reaction to the rude behavior of a stranger. And he's irresistibly drawn to a woman who spells sex with a capital $.

In response to a question during the post-screening Q & A, Vundla noted that 2 million in South African rand is somewhere around US$300,000. "All that killing and bloodshed for $300,000," Vundla said with a smile. "It hardly seems worth it."

And that's the essence of film noir, too, the idea that the lead character is hurtling toward the abyss and is powerless to stop from tumbling over the ledge. It's all about the style, the mood, and the fatalism, and How to Steal 2 Million captures the essence.


* UPDATE: Title corrected in headline and in body of article. Apologies for my error.

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