Bizarrely selected as closing film of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, French director Jérôme Salle’s ultra-generic South African cop thriller Zulu (2013) – starring Forest Whitaker, Orlando Bloom and over one hundred grating clichés – finds its way onto DVD this week. Whitaker plays Captain Ali, a rigorous and by-the-books police officer who is haunted by a terrible incident in his past. Bloom is the Martin Riggs of the pair, a serial philanderer, an absent father and an alcoholic who certainly doesn’t feel inclined to play by the rules. When a rich white girl is beaten to death the pair are called in and are soon linking the murder to a new kind of drug being sold on the streets, as well as a raft of missing children.
The main character of the film is South Africa itself which we see through its townships; the rich areas, the beach and the desert. Director of photography Denis Rouden vividly photographs the country and Salle orchestrates the action sequences with a deft touch. However, the cinematography and the landscapes alone cannot unfortunately make up for the ho-hum, murder mystery nature of Zulu, nor the flatness of its two central performances. Both Whitaker and Bloom attempt passable South African accents, and the former undoubtedly aims to evoke a certain gravitas, but instead ends up just looking plain sleepy.
Bloom has never been a great actor per se, and here is given both a stock character and a wealth of stock scenes: arguments with his ex-wife who is going to remarry; seducing a female witness etc. The ghosts of the myriad of actors (Mel Gibson, Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood to name the first three that come to mind) who have done this role better before looms over the out-of-his depth Brit. Salle’s view of South Africa is notably dark. It contends that the forgiveness of the truth and reconciliation committees might have left some serious work undone by allowing so many guilty men to be granted amnesty. And yet Zulu never gets beyond the hackneyed, stereotypical narrative of old Mother Africa versus its new breed of gangsters and corrupt cops; a very ordinary thriller which not even the novelty of its locations can redeem.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty