Film Review: Five Fingers for Marseilles

This gritty South Africa-set western takes a turn towards campy drama.
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Five Fingers for Marseilles, the debut feature of director Michael Matthews, looks from the hero’s hat to his boots the part of a 21st-century revisionist western crime story. Set in South Africa in a black township called Railway, companion town to nearby, European-settled Marseilles, the film boasts the right mood of mystery and menace, and impressive cinematography by DP Shaun Lee.

It cannot, unfortunately, boast a taut pace and narrative to match the mood of unease that fills the air like dust in this depressed desert outpost. Railway is overrun with criminal outfits and thugs, but it wasn’t always so. As depicted in a brief, years-earlier setup story, in the days of Apartheid it was white cops whose looming presence struck fear in the hearts of the townspeople.

Fear for some, but anger and defiance for others, as the willful teenager Tau (Toka Mtabane), known to friends as the Lion, demonstrates one awful day when he more than stands up to two oppressive officers. In the act of avenging his sort-of girlfriend, Lerato (Vuyo Novokoza), Tau brandishes a gun and shoots to kill. To protect his remaining friends, and left with no other choice if he wants to keep his own life, Tau takes off, not to be seen nor heard from again.

The repercussions of the Lion’s act of violence echo into the present day, when Railway and its people struggle to get by in the lean years since the Europeans abandoned the city of Marseilles to hustlers and crime lords. His friends who remained in town were in various ways branded with his crime and never lived it down, particularly his friend Zulu (Ntsika Tiyo), who eventually married Lerato but later succumbed to the violence that plagues the town.

Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond capably set the stage for the arrival in Railway of a mysterious stranger, who, of course, turns out to be Tau the Lion (Vuyo Dabula). He still has a temper, and now is a swift gunslinger who hopes to help clean up the town. But he encounters resistance, both practical and emotional, from his friends. Everyone wants him to atone for the path his friend Zulu’s life, and all their lives, took after his act of defiance and in his subsequent absence. Really, they’d gladly see him hang his head for any and everything that’s gone bad in Railway since he left town. The guilt-tripping gets old, and the just-okay performances don’t bolster anyone’s case. Except, that is, in the case of Lerato, now a mother, portrayed affectingly by Zethu Dlomo (known for the Emmy-winning series “Black Sails”) as an old friend whose grievance feels real and justified.

Dlomo sparks an alertness from co-star Dabula that’s not readily apparent throughout the film, which gradually becomes a rather sleepy oater. Dabula’s Lion is a taciturn hero, quiet not in an enigmatic fashion that inspires “Who’s that guy?” intrigue, but just quiet and a bit stiff. In that sense, he’s complemented by the frozen extras in the background at the local cantina, and in fight scenes where it seems the whole township is watching. Perhaps to create more striking visual tableaux, the extras tend to stand by like statues or remain stock-still on their chairs and barstools. It’s an odd choice for an action flick, and not the only one.

The Lion’s main adversary in the struggle for the heart of Railway is a crime boss known as Sepoko, a.k.a. The Ghost (Hamilton Dhlamini), and he’s an entertaining character but perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended. The Ghost wobbles around Railway, swaddled in coats and wraps despite the heat, sounding threats punctuated by a laugh that Dhlamini pushes deep into Jabba the Hutt territory.

In general, Ghost’s gangsterism and speeches, which sound sweetened in the sound design, evoke Jabba, whose ruthlessness was, after all, well-known throughout galaxies far and wide. The giant, lascivious slug certainly is a movie villain worth ripping off, and the reference is a decent fit for a film constructed as pastiche rather than as an innovative take on a genre. Ghost is ruthless, too, but he’s no match for Jabba the Hutt, or for the Lion. The film builds to a climactic, all-hands-on-deck gunfight that plays out as a nearly random sequence of skirmishes, before culminating in a nicely edited wrap-up of the Lion’s perilous adventure.