My second major discovery of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2013, after We Gotta Get Out of This Place is iNUMBER NUMBER. It is a South African heist film, written and directed by Donovan Marsh, with outstanding action, suspense, and cinematography. Take the “undercover cop in a gang” genre, cross it with the “armored car heist” genre, set it in the cinematically-underexplored South African crime scene, and throw in some innovative camera badassery, multiply your expectations by a factor of 10, and you might be getting close to a picture of what you’re in for.
In the opening scene, an elegant melange of amber hues, deep focus, and subtitles scattered about the screen, one of our heroes, Chili (S’dumo Mtshali), is tied to a chair, being held captive. The way he escapes makes that scene in THE AVENGERS look like an episode of MR ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD. This is art house, grindhouse, Tarantino, and Scorsese set in a world rarely seen in Western cinema.
A chair busting isn’t enough for our hero to escape his captors, who are armed to the teeth, and prowling the house he’s in. Chili calls his buddy, Shoes (Presley Chweneyagae of TSOTSI fame), who is lurking outside, and can see some of the bad guys, but Shoes doesn’t have a gun. It is up to Chili to almost single-handedly dispatch a half-dozen armed baddies with little more than his wits and another pair of eyes. This is how you do action -- the antithesis of shakycam. The stage is set, the scene described, and with every gunshot, head blow, and chase, you know exactly what is happening. iNUMBER NUMBER is that roller coaster that catapults you out of the gate. You can catch your breath later, but first it is going to let you know who’s boss.
After the intro, our cop buddies, Chili and Shoes, have their inevitable showdown with their captain. Asshole cop bosses are the Judas to the hero cop Jesus, in the sense that they have to have a role to play: selling out and crucifying the good guys so that they can rise again in cinematic glory. Chili is pushed right to the edge. This time, he’s going to infiltrate a gang and instead of being the good cop he’s just going to take the money. Oh yes, this is the African RESERVOIR DOGS, but instead of talk we get high tension and action, action, action.
The gang Chili infiltrates has everything -- the wise, fat boss, a white racist Boer, a dude named G8 (as in the richest countries), secret lovers, a hothead who is suspicious of our hero, and an ex soap opera star who doubles as an explosives expert. Most of these characters are not developed beyond being foils for our heroes, but I don’t care about that so much as the fact that they aren’t just stock characters. There general craziness makes them less predictable than your run of the mill henchman.
The film has a strong middle, full of character building and suspense. But then it just layers on the action as it roars into the final act. All along, the look and camera work are truly stunning and innovative. When I heard this was a South African film, I was expecting a low-budget indie. I think a better way to think about it is: for a film to cross over from South Africa, it is probably pretty bad-ass. Our action industry has become largely moribund by virtue of formulaic writing and staged set pieces. But director Donovan Marsh didn’t get the memo and is innovating the pants off his big-budget Hollywood counterparts.
One thing that is refreshing about iNUMBER NUMBER is that it isn’t at all clear how the film will turn out or should turn out. I won’t give away the ending, but when I ran into Alamo Drafthouse and Drafthouse Films founder Tim League at a party at TIFF, we got into a discussion about this very subject. We agreed we loved the action and look of in the film, but diverged on the moral pickle our characters had gotten themselves into. Tim wanted the film to end one way, while I argued that it could only logically end the way it did.
I recently visited South Africa to teach school kids there to astronomy, among other things. As chance would have it, one of my high school friends had moved to Cape Town, had given up his job in the States as an undercover cop, and was now a filmographer. His wife was working in the townships for the Desmond Tutu Foundation on AIDS epidemiology. It was an eye-opening experience, seeing the blend (or stark isolation) of cultures, at once so much like, and so distant from the US or Europe. And yet no amount of tourism could get me close to the world depicted in this film. iNUMBER NUMBER is a cinematic spaceship that takes us half a world away, both in terms of geography and culture. Buy a ticket for the action, but marvel in all that goes alongside it. You probably haven’t seen it before.