We expect the exploits of bank-robbing folk heroes to be preserved on screen in amber — Butch Cassidy’s actual stickups softened with dollops of American charm from Paul Newman, Ned Kelly’s historical outback outrage romanticized with Aussie allure from Heath Ledger. But Andre Stander, the conflicted South African antihero played with disciplined bravado by ”The Punisher”’s Tom Jane in the riveting true-life drama Stander, robbed banks too recently to qualify for sepia treatment. Besides, the South Africa of his day was too wrenched by the racist policies of apartheid to pass for golden: Stander repeatedly held up Johannesburg-area establishments with audacious brio (and much to the delight of the downtrodden) from 1977 to 1984.
It should be noted that when he began his unlawful career, he was also one of the youngest captains in the Johannesburg police force — and sometimes the robber returned as cop to investigate the scene of his own crime. Directed by Bronwen Hughes (”Harriet the Spy”) with striking verve, ”Stander” efficiently conveys the anarchic ironies of the situation: Jane slips mischievously into and out of disguises, eventually joined by Dexter Fletcher and David Patrick O’Hara, playing Stander’s partners in sticking it to the system. But the sly escapades and intimate interludes with Deborah Kara Unger as wife Bekkie are layered over a passionate, tough, journalistic feel for the country that shaped the man.
The naturalistic script, written by Bima Stagg, suggests that the first crack in Stander’s internal barrier dividing lawfulness and chaos appeared in 1976, while he was a cop on riot patrol involved in the indiscriminate killing of a black protester. The chilling, ”Bloody Sunday”-like re-creation of that uprising (shot, as the whole picture was, on location in South Africa) is its own gripping distillation of all-too-current history — a history that benefits from being examined through the eyes of the villains as well as the heroes.