Bronwen Hughes' true-heist picture Stander never gets better than its opening-credits sequence, which features aerial topography of 1976 Johannesburg. The abstract shapes and colors, familiar to anyone who's been on an airplane, are used here to sharply delineate the haves and have-nots, with helicopter shots of lush green estates and swimming pools sharing space with the tin-roof shantytowns ravaged by apartheid. These images, simple and unmediated, address the South African divide with more directness and power than the rest of the movie can match, mainly because it's the only time the issue isn't filtered through white liberal guilt. With the story of Andre Stander, a former police captain turned notorious bank robber, Hughes goes down the unfortunate road of movies like Cry Freedom and Glory, which only see the black experience through white eyes.
A certain lack of reflection plagues Stander throughout, though the surface pleasures of a well-told, compelling story shouldn't be entirely disregarded. In a sequence shot with startling photorealism, the city's riot police attempt to thwart a boisterous demonstration in Soweto, but when things get out of hand, Stander (Thomas Jane) and his men open fire on the crowd. The incident is just the latest in a string of conflicts between the cops and black insurgents, but it shakes Jane enough that he realizes his department resources are committed entirely to oppression, while whites can get away with anything. By way of protest, Stander successfully robs one bank and then another, until he's robbing during his lunch hour, then leading the investigation into his own crimes. When he gets caught, he loses the support of his devoted wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and father, but he re-forms the infamous "Stander Gang" in prison and breaks out for another spectacular crime spree.
The disparity between Stander's first robbery, where he lobs his ill-gotten earnings to a young black street vendor, and subsequent heists, which fund sports cars and a sprawling mansion, seems like a natural place for a character study to start. But just as the character seems to lose track of his original buck-the-system intentions, Stander forgets its purpose in turn, charging ahead with its folk hero without really questioning his evaporating values. The Stander Gang models itself to the outlaw tradition of Bonnie And Clyde and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kidand the always-interesting Jane, a volatile and unpredictable character actor, fits the billbut the movie isn't worthy of the legend. When Stander finally gets back around to race, its conclusion is disappointingly reductive.