In South African director Charlie Vundla’s “How to Steal 2 Million,” Johannesburg is equated with “a jungle.” Main protagonist, middle aged Jack–fresh out of jail and looking for a job and opportunities–compares the city unfavorably to New York City, where, in contrast, people “are in it together.” Mostly shot in empty streets or in dark interiors and at night, the Johannesburg of the film lives up to this characterization. But it’s not just the main character who pines for a projected version of New York City; the film itself longs for its double, adapting and mirroring New York’s association with film noir.
The film follows the trajectory of Jack (played by Menzi Ngubane) and his last-ditch attempts to rise above petty crime. Jack had some money stashed away in books, but soon he’ll run out. An old acquaintance, Twala (Rapulana Seiphemo) entices him to commit a robbery: to steal from Twala’s father, played by a Tony Award winner John Kani. The younger Twala needs to pay off gambling debts. There’s also lot more than meets the eye in the first scenes. We learn that Twala stole Jack’s girlfriend Kim (Hlubi Mboya) while Jack was serving time, and Twala Snr. is himself a first class criminal. Then there’s Olive (Terry Pheto of “Tsotsi”), a thief who Jack meets in a bar. He recruits her for the heist. ’How to steal 2 million’ joins a slew of other new crime films out of South Africa set in Johannesburg (think “Jerusalema” in which Seiphemo had the lead; that film was led down by its stereotypical portrayal of Nigerians and fanciful plot). Here the focus is more on the characters and the plots they concoct to outsmart each other. Some cliched dialogue aide, in the end the tale holds up well. Fans of gangster movies will definitely appreciate this one.
Here’s the trailer:
“How to steal 2 million’ plays on Thursday, April 12, at 8.15pm at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.
* Africa is a Country will review films from the 19th New York African Film Festival (April 11-17) over the next few days. Also come to the two panels on “Cinema and Propaganda” which we are co-presenting with the Festival on Saturday, April 14, from 1.30-4pm at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan.