How to Steal 2 Millionby Kavish Chetty / 07.09.2011
At the risk of sounding overreaching (but no more so than this film), America’s imperial campaigns in the Middle East share a strange logic with How to Steal 2 Million. In the aftermath of Iraq, political commentators – most recently even that punching-bag Francis Fukuyama – all centrifuged around a common criticism: the surface justification of the war – the spread of liberal democracy to a savage and pagan nation – had itself an inner imperialism. Let’s leave aside the crass economic interests which are by now both banal and naked. The desire to bequeath the Middle East the holy largesse of liberal democracy – or values that are taken to be at once both American (western) and universal: modernity, rationalism, capitalism etc. – has always met with a problem. It’s the problem of a foreign, hostile culture; in some grander sense it is the problem of difference. The war encounters a configuration of social and political facts which don’t graft themselves easily and bloodlessly to liberal democracy’s arms-splayed and welcoming body. There isn’t a divine rulebook of democratic injunctions with a check-list. So failing a sensitivity to its exact location, its precise coordinates, and failing to account for that difference and particularity, these campaigns are bound to be tortuous, lengthy, violent.
How to Steal 2 Million has got the inverse, perverse Stockholm-syndrome flipside logic of that failure to account for difference. Instead of having imperialism ranged against it from the outside, it ranges that imperialism against itself; it romances with and is betrothed to American traditions. It makes this lust clear from its opening stanzas. We open on industrial shots of Johannesburg rendered (and rendered well, it must be said) as some kind of urban wasteland. The narrator tells us in abrasive tones how after the terrorist attacks in New York he sensed a togetherness in its people, especially in their expressions; the way they looked at each other. He wishes Johannesburg was like New York, because he remarks cynically that “it’s a jungle out here”. But he wishes his city was like New York with an urgent desperation. He needs his city to be like New York, because he needs the traditions of the film noir (which this film slavishly worships, mouth agape) to happily graft themselves to his precise location. Film noir climaxed in the late 1940s, and was enjoying a hard-earned post-orgasm sleep when suddenly film-makers like Charlie Vundla (who is certainly not the first) roused it awake at the shoulders and begged it for a second round. But noir doesn’t graft here so easily – you might describe the result of the film as a case of graft vs. host in the vein of Tobias Fünke, everyone’s favourite ‘analrapist’ – because this isn’t the New York or San Francisco or Chicago of the 1940s, and no amount of plundering the archives and dim lighting will make it so. What 2 Million ends up being then is a cliché-ridden trawl through all the signifiers of the noir mode.
Even the setup makes this obvious: Jack (Menzi Ngubane) has just got out of a long haul in prison. He’s a dark guy with a dark past. But he wants to clean up shop now because he “can’t go back to prison”. He wants to cut loose from the criminal underworld and set up a legitimate business in construction. But he’s an ex-con and the sucker just can’t get a break. He needs to get the capital together to go clean – and so he finds himself tempted by one final job, the job of all jobs; enough to set him up for life (although frankly, I don’t find 2 million rand to be such a ground-shattering incentive for the audience to get on his side: you could win a large fraction of that cash playing Deal or No Deal for Chrissakes). So, he gets a brief from his old partner, a decadent, slithery gambling-addict (Rapulana Seiphemo). What we’re looking at here is not classic, it’s standard; it’s formulaic. The scheme is inevitably going to go wrong, there are inevitably going to be double-crossings, and there are inevitably going to be one-liners. One of the pithier quotes is, “in my experience, when a man says ‘I am a man who keeps his word’, he is not a man who keeps his word.” Another intelligent remark, subverting status-quo thinking, is “They say you can’t choose family. I guess you can choose to rip them off.” Nothing more than a dull sense of inevitability guides the direction of this film. It’s also needless to say that Jack, committing the ultimate irony of getting dirty to get clean, has a tokenistic spiritual struggle with himself (although poorly and frankly irrelevantly dramatised). This culminates in the realisation: “all I know is how to steal.”
About a quarter-way into this film I realised I was trapped in a nightmare. It was like I was watching SABC 1 without a remote and there was no promise of an imminent advert-break, so I could get up and flee through the passageways screaming. There is not a single idea in this film that is original and aside from its competently stylish and dark cinematography (but let’s not get carried away with the praise), everything about it is awful. The acting is properly painful, especially an exchange between an old apartheid cop and some jackass-in-the-backseat he’s been hired to work for. Rapulana Seiphemo is only capable of one expression: a pissed-off look with flared nostrils and endlessly round cheeks. Jack as the protagonist is impossible to root for: a nasty, unsympathisable asshole. In Grand Theft Auto IV, an ex-con called Dwayne is released from prison after many years into an unrecognizable Liberty City. He faces many of the challenges of Jack, but his dramatic portrayal (in a videogame, no less) is soaked with pathos and defeat. Jack here just can’t pull it off. I disliked him, I didn’t care about him, I wished he would die. And elsewhere the misogynistic portrayal of a mutual love interest (Hlubi Mboya, designed in this film to resemble a malnourished common harlot) is trite. There is a certain amount of nastiness in these descriptions because I genuinely consider this to be the worst film I have reviewed this year so far: it’s copycat cinema of the most impotent kind with a slack script and lax acting.
I read a brief review elsewhere online in which the critic rather romantically proclaimed, “In a celebration of heritage month, keep it local and go see it!” What heritage? Whose heritage? I might expand to ask who the hell goes out to watch movies for the pure sake of ‘heritage’, anyway? If we take as a working definition that ‘heritage’ gravitates around cultural traditions passed down from generation to generation, then there is clearly no inheritance from anything South African to do with this film in the first place: watching this might possibly be the most unpatriotic move possible at your local shopping mall. What is properly name-checked, groveled before and paid lobola to is Noir York. This returns to all my overblown notions about America at the beginning of this review. In this country America no longer has to valorise its culture at the expense of others; its own way of thinking is so internal and permeated in our own, that the highest hallmark of achievement is to mimic: no matter how shite and poorly executed. In the film-makers’ stubborn inability to recognise that this isn’t America, they couldn’t pay attention to the difference in this country that does not make it an open wound ready to plugged up and gauzed with Noir. The results are not anachronisms but churning oddities; a country straining with every pressure to behave like its master told it.
It’s by now the most disastrous expectation fulfilled with nearly every local movie you watch: a parasitic industry devouring overseas phenomenona, repackaging them into South African gear, keeping them instantly, wholly recognisable as what they were in the first place. Even if it is possible to do Noir in South Africa, which of course it is in theory, 2 Million doesn’t. Why does it even bother competing? It doesn’t have the machinic perfection of the American cultural assembly lines to beat them at their own game. Which starts to beg the question that threatens cinema in this country: what is South African cinema, what is its point? Because with a handful of notable exceptions, the comprador soul of this cinema plays the middle-man, the easily excised, the ferryman of a lame culture it has been aggressively taught to worship.