The South African locations are the most interesting aspect of Tsotsi, an otherwise uninspired crime melodrama based on a novel by playwright Athol Fugard. With their corrugated metal walls and dirt floors, the shanties that make up the slums of Soweto stand in stark contrast with the high-rises and gated communities of the wealthier sections of Johannesburg. The two worlds meet in this story, but with consequences that aren't as unexpected as the filmmakers might have wished.
A runaway after his mother died of AIDS, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is as anonymous as his name, which is slang for thug or hood. He heads a gang of four, including the vicious Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), amiable Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), and Boston (Mothusi Magano), an alcoholic dropout. Boston's scruples provoke a fight after Butcher stabs a pickpocket victim in the subway. His tactics and motives questioned, Tsotsi beats Boston mercilessly in a Soweto shebeen.
Running away in a blind rage, Tsotsi finds himself in a wealthy suburb. When Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana) has trouble opening the gate to her garage, Tsotsi shoots her and steals her car. Only later does he discover Pumla's baby in the back seat. Abandoning the car by a highway, Tsotsi brings the baby back to his shanty. Unable to care for the infant, he forces Miriam, a widowed seamstress, to nurse it.
His protective instincts awakened, Tsotsi breaks off with Butcher and reconciles with Boston. When news of the kidnapping spreads through the media, Tsotsi could be betrayed by any of the many he has crossed in Soweto. He must decide whether to sacrifice himself by returning the baby to his parents.
The film presents a vivid picture of life in Soweto, and makes good use of a pounding soundtrack filled with "kwaito" music. But its plot, updated from Fugard's 1950s settings, reduces moral issues to pointlessly simplistic levels. Using a baby to redeem a criminal is neither realistic nor honest, especially as it's enacted here.
With a slight figure and soft eyes, Chweneyagae has too pleasant a demeanor to project the menace his part requires. Nor is he an accomplished enough actor to finesse the script's contrivances. As the widow who helps humanize him, Terry Pheto is improbably kind and beautiful. The strongest performances are in small parts, in particular Nkosi as a chubby but still dangerous hood, and Thembi Nyandeni as an untrustworthy bartender. When they're on screen, Tsotsi shows an energy that's otherwise absent.