When the camera first settles on Presley Chweneyagae, the hoodlum hero of the South African drama Tsotsi, he meets it with a hard stare that's more than enough to compensate for his size, like Jimmy Cagney in a classic Warner Brothers gangster movie. There's clearly an ugly backstory behind those eyes, but the moment the film provides him with one, they soften in intensity and the whole thing turns to mush. Based on Athol Fugard's novel, Tsotsi explains when it should be suggesting, and its compulsion to color in psychological details that are better left shaded leaves nothing for the audience to figure out on its own. In trying to find the decency in a killer, the film anxiously accounts for his every misdeed. It's a little like watching City Of God morph into Three Men And A Baby.
The unquestioned leader of a four-man gang in the Johannesburg slums, Chweneyagae has people twice his size shrinking away from him, including the other three toughs in his crew. His viciousness is established early when he tacitly orders the stabbing of a wealthy businessman on a subway train, then half-kills a fellow gang member for raising moral objections. Things take a turn when he ventures into an upper-class neighborhood and shoots a mother (Nambitha Mpumlwana) in a botched carjacking, only to realize later that her baby is still sitting in the backseat. In a panic, Chweneyagae plops the child into a paper shopping bag and heads back into the township without a clue as to how to take care of it. To that end, he enlists a widowed mother (Terry Pheto) at gunpoint to nurse the baby and teach him the finer points of child-rearing.
Something about babies turns all men into Steve Guttenberg. One evening, Chweneyagae is shooting an unarmed woman in the gut; the next morning, he's improvising a diaper out of taped-together newspapers. After that, all his menace evaporates into coos. Sentimentality is hard to avoid when a baby comes into the picture, but writer-director Gavin Hood doesn't do much to hold back the waters. After those opening misdeeds, Hood scrambles to push audience sympathy in his hero's direction, whether by flashing back to Chweneyagae's dog-kicking brute of a father or soft-pedaling his violent crimes. (The only person he kills had it coming; the ones he merely maims stick around for redemptive purposes.) Who knew cold-blooded sociopaths were such softies at heart?