Allusions to classic westerns abound in this impressive 2017 South African drama.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
An audaciously imaginative mashup of Spaghetti Western elements and post-Apartheid South African melodrama, Five Fingers for Marseilles is an impressively effective and engrossing cross-cultural hybrid. As I noted in my Variety review filed from the 2017 Fantastic Fest in Austin: “Director Michael Matthews and scripter Sean Drummond skillfully employ recycled genre elements to enhance the mythic qualities of their slow-burn narrative and reinforce the underlying sense that their archetypical characters are fulfilling destinies as inescapable as the fates that might befall major players in a conventional Wild West saga.”
Vuyo Dabula neatly balances the taciturn grit of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and the slow-to-erupt stoicism Alan Ladd’s Shane as Tau, a notorious outlaw who, after a lengthy prison stretch, tries to turn over a new leaf by renouncing violence and returning to New Marseilles, his Eastern Cape hometown, which is now run by Bongani (Kenneth Nkosi), one of his former confederates. Unfortunately, however, very much like the traditional western gunslingers who earnestly promise to hang up their pistols and return to their roots, Tau finds himself unable to follow through on his good intentions.
To be fair, Tau really would prefer to steer clear of the bad guys — especially the worst of those bad guys, Sepoko (Hamilton Dhlamini), a.k.a. Ghost, a raspy voiced, flamboyantly villainous gangster who really doesn’t need the permission he’s been granted by Bongani to take what he wants from New Marseilles. But a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, especially when he’s prodded by Lerato (Zethu Dlomo), an old friend and implied romantic interest, and her young son, Sizwe (Lizwi Vilakazi), who’s all too eager to view Tau as a role model. “You don’t want to be anything like me,” Tau warns the boy. But he does, of course, and his desire has consequences, and everything leads to a showdown that’s straight out of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Again, from my Variety review: “Five Fingers for Marseilles was filmed on location in and around the North-Eastern Cape village of Lady Gray… but the terrain will be instantly familiar to audiences as the sort of harsh frontier setting where Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci once had rugged antiheroes clash with gaggles of tough customers. Bad men bestride this movie-informed landscape with guns on their hips and, in many cases, cowboy hats (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) on their heads. (There are even horses on view now and then.) Dabula is able to bring humanizing shadings of character — guilt, regret, moral outrage — to [his role]. But he also rises to the occasion as a near-superhuman hero when Matthews and Drummond go full Spaghetti Western, most notably in a scene where Tau somehow survives sadistic torture as resiliently as Eastwood’s taciturn bounty hunter (or Franco Nero’s Django) ever did.”
Five Fingers for Marseilles is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and other platforms.
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