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How to Steal 2 Million

How to Steal 2 Million

by 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.

How to Steal 2 Million

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.”

How to Steal 2 Million

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.

How to Steal 2 Million

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I love the fact it says “sometimes crime does pay” on the poster, when clearly the point of the film, like all films like this, is that crime doesn’t pay. Also, which ad agency was paid to come up with the posters and cinematography? Come on.

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  2. Long Tall Sally says:

    “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.”

    Exactly how I felt seeing the trailer last week. Can’t imagine how awful it must have been to watch the whole damn thing.

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  3. Markie says:

    It seems to be doing very well at the box office…

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  4. Faye says:


    Of course, the box-office is really the measure of excellence. How can it not be? those doped-up, ill-informed, Barry-Ronge-taught morons continue to determine the shape and possibility of art in our country.

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  5. Travis M. Bergmann says:

    So did Titanic.

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  6. sleaze says:

    Does Hlubi Myboya get her kit off? Then it might be worth getting the DVD.

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  7. even sleazier says:

    Why the hell does everyone like Hlubi Mboya? she looks like an Ethiopian in a wig. Yes, I just went there.

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  8. Sum43 says:

    Nice review Kavish. South African culture as repackaged American culture. It’s in our movies, music and literature. So contrived, so unambitious. Ah well.

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  9. eet ees rayseest says:

    looks kuk. should have been a token wit ou in the movie

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  10. Just Saying says:

    Nice review, but I’m not sure noir can fit in SA, even theoretically. One of the founding tenets of Noir is that crime, violence, betrayal and their accompanying psychological concerns are comfortably contained in a dark, scary basement of an otherwise basically functioning society. In other words, cinema-goers huddle in the dark, thrilled by an almost fantastical world that doesn’t exist outside the cinema, or at least exists only in part of the city they never go. It is exciting because it is safe.

    In SA, a society shaped (or stunted) by violence so prevalent that we are relieved when only 15,000 people are murdered in a year, the same rules can’t apply. Crime stories take on a slippery documentary or slice-of-life aspect. I suppose what I’m saying is that Noir is impossible in SA because it’s just not thrilling because it’s part of our lived reality.

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  11. TY says:

    Really loving Kavish’s film reviews. Probably the only reviewer is this country with a credible and intelligent response to the medium. Nice one

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  12. ross says:

    Sean De Waal has become really flabby and repetitive in his reviews of late. Wishy washy. Thanks for having an opinion and sticking with it

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  13. jelly-bean says:

    What did Barry Ronge have to say about this movie?Who the hell is Hlubi Mboya?
    Of course I’m going to see it – I’ve never been stuck watching SABC 1 without a remote…and besides I’m proudly South African.Mediocrity rules!..ok?

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  14. Anonymous says:


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  15. RAPELANG says:


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  16. XO says:

    @even Ethiopian women are one of the most beautiful women in the world.

    As for Hlubi i agree she is beyond overrated but your insulting Ethiopians with that comment, is not on.

    And getting excited over Hlubi’s naked body is the equivalent to liking child porn…she has the body of a pre-pubescent 12 year old boy these days since she’s so skinny.

    but i can’t wait to watch that movie on SABC1 with the option of changing the channel.

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  17. Anonymous says:

    nyc `1 guys….keep it up….LETS SEE YOU MANHOOD……

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  18. kenya says:

    Not anytime soon,I’ll wait wait for it on sabc1.great review though

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  19. Anonymous says:


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  20. Anonymous says:


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  21. Annonymous says:

    Where can i start?OH my GOD….The movie is awesome…love the story line and gerat job indeed n well done to SA Production

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  22. Trinity Baloyi says:

    This is wat I expected from my fellow South Africans and they made me proud. Much respect…

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  23. theo says:

    high five to menzi ngubane.not yet watched the movie yet but i know its an awesome one.just saw the poster yesterday but am one of the fans of the movie.Rapulana Seiphemo is back with the game,i know her tools never go down just like always man.

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  24. S'tha says:

    Impressive!Menzi Ngubane is my role model.Ain’t seen the movie but it’s worth it.The picks are attractive and l can’t to watch it.The combination of actors spells unity and S.A pride.Thumbs up guys.

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  25. vuyiseka ntibane says:

    keep up the good work Menzi,you are my rolr model

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  26. Sam says:

    Give credit where it is due. I’m glad i watched this movie the guys did a good job, cant say the same to you Kavish. My attempt at criticising a critic!!

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  27. Anonymous says:

    Lyk the honesty n realism in ur criticism

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  28. Zinno says:

    I always get stuck between pity and confussion whenever I come across South Africans who have no sense of pride, patriotism and/or optimism regarding our own initiatives and progress – as if they are merely trapped here!! If one is gonna be here, they may just as well get with the programme or………….. well, there are alternatives I’m sure! THE MOVIE WAS AWESOME!!

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  29. Nuff Said says:

    …Charles Vundla, what was he thinking? he’s not even a filmmaker, he’s just a spolied kid with daddy’s connections at his disposal.

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  30. Anonymous says:

    the movie waz not that great yes. But the criticizm iz even worse. This critic iz completely subjective. Very bias. There iz negative reviewz then there’z just plain hating. This guy kavesh or whateva clearly haz issuez that go deep.

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  31. senzo fortune says:

    eeeeeeeish the movie is fantastic.

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  32. Inflammable says:

    Compared to recent movies of SA,this is not what i was expecting,but anyway,you tried guys-Terry Pheto,you’ll always be my star babe,no matter how poor the creativity,i know you are the best girl.

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  33. FAcess says:

    Havent watched the movie, my girlfriend has been annoying me about it. so i will stall even more until I get it from a neigbour or a friend. I am not spending a black cent on anything I will regret. I learned my lesson with that 13 something! hell no!

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  34. sthembiso says:

    How to steal a 2 million

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  35. SBUSISO says:


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  36. SBUSISO says:


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  37. SBUSISO says:


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