Over the years, many directors have been attached to the project, including Barbet Schroeder, but all passed until it landed in the lap of the most unlikely candidate, Bronwen Hughes, a woman from Canada best known for her benignly winsome, Nickelodeon-produced adaptation of Harriet the Spy in 1996 and the screwed-up screwball would-be comedy Forces of Nature with Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck three years later. Nothing in her tiny filmography suggested she had within her the vision and might to make something as remarkable as Stander, which fuses the wrenching immediacy of Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday with the dark humor of Bonnie and Clyde and the breezy pacing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yet the movie, with its shifts in tone (from the polemic to the comic) and contrasts in colors (the brown 1970s brighten as we enter the 1980s), has its own identity. Unlike, say, Barry Levinson's Bandits, another movie in which kindly bank robbers don disguises that look like they've been pilfered from a costume shop along the escape route, Stander doesn't have the dusty feel of pastiche.
It's just as well, too, that the movie lingered in limbo as long as it did; it would have been unthinkable without Thomas Jane, who finally reveals himself as possessing a movie star's radiance after so many failed attempts. Or perhaps it's just far more fun to be a brazen, macho bad guy than a brooding, macho good guy, which he was earlier this year in The Punisher, a movie that drowned in its own bloodshed and left Jane gasping for air. Since a good hunk of the movie is set in the late 1970s, it's not accidental that Jane plays Stander like some hybrid of Steve McQueen in The Getaway and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy -- as a crooked man with a cockeyed grin who uses his charm to get what lesser men would demand with a shotgun. Like George Clooney in Out of Sight, Jane finds his big-screen bearings as a bank robber to whom tellers are only too happy to hand over the cash. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that David Holmes, who scored Out of Sight, also provides Stander's groovy retrofitted soundtrack.)
For the first 30 minutes or so, Jane plays Andre like a man at torturous odds with everything around him -- his job (at 31, he was the youngest captain in the South African police force); his wife, Bekka (played by Deborah Kara Unger, whom he's seen remarrying during the movie's opening moments); and his own father, a beloved police general played by Marius Weyers, who trod similar ground in 1993's Bopha! It's all Andre can do to keep his clothes on during the movie's early scenes, whether he's making love with his wife on the beach or thrashing around in his den to the rock music booming from his headphones. It's a metaphor taken to the literal extreme: Andre would rather be nude than wear his uniform one more second, especially after he's put on riot duty and kills an unarmed black man while putting down a student revolt in Tembisa. It's this action, accidental but inevitable, that sends Andre over the edge; better to be a bad guy, he figures, than a good guy who does evil things in the desperate scuttle to maintain apartheid.
Once the movie turns into a heist picture, it ditches its politics in the pursuit of a good time; Andre and his jailbreak gang, Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher) and Allan Heyl (David Patrick O'Hara), don their myriad dopey disguises and conduct their bad business over a rollicking soundtrack of '70s rock, giving it the feel-good vibe of a Starsky and Hutch joy ride. It's darker, of course: Andre's act of revolution might have been born of revulsion, but it becomes apparent rather quickly that he digs being a criminal more than he ever loved being a cop. There's also the suggestion that he possesses a sort of death wish; no man is that brazen without hoping there's a bullet waiting for him around the next corner. But, till that moment arrives, the movie is stirringly, thrillingly animated; Stander, as some say around Johannesburg, lives.