REVIEW: Clichés Fly Like Bullets in Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema
A gangster epic with a geopolitical twist, Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema prefaces its portrait of a young man's rise in the criminal underworld with the assurance that the story was "inspired by real events." The picture was shot in South Africa and spans almost 15 years between post-apartheid and present day; the country's struggle for freedom and free enterprise informs much of the action. And yet there is a competing sense that the "real events" that served as inspiration occurred in a series of theaters in which writer/director Ralph Ziman took in the gangster canon, from Scarface to Shaft and all the way to Gomorrah. Al Capone is invoked early and often, hip hop-style, giving the mistaken impression that Ziman might not intend to play the genre's clichés absolutely, numbingly straight.
The film opens with Lucky Kunane's (Rapulana Seiphemo) apparent downfall: He's been wounded and cornered by the fuzz, and it looks like the end of the road. Perfect time for some in-depth reflection! Cue flashback: Lucky was a promising kid from the townships of Soweto, but his dreams of fast cars and a college education are derailed by poverty; the opportunities that were supposed to be released along with Nelson Mandela failed to materialize. Lucky and his childhood pal (Motlatsi Mahloko) are recruited by a local thug named Nazareth (Jeffrey Zekele), who's fresh from a gangster study-abroad program offered in Moscow. In his post-doc work Nazareth studies Hollywood movies for new moves, and the director borrows from them somewhat indiscriminately as well: A carjacking sequence is played like an action-comedy caper; the "one last job" heist-film trope is quickly donned and discarded. The film is so busy rifling through genres that it fails to develop a coherent flavor of its own.
"In the new South Africa, everyone deserved their entitlement," Lucky says, one of a dozen or more head-scratching aphorisms that are meant to set the socio-political scene. He's better off sticking to Capone. Having left the life as a young man, Lucky is drawn back in as an adult, and takes a swing at the big leagues of criminal activity: real estate. Acting as a slumlord under the guise of community organizing, Lucky begins taking over buildings and rinsing them of bad elements. He's an ineffective anti-hero from the start. Lucky's journey fails to inspire either empathy or a more scrutinizing ethical engagement; he acts simply as a character in a cut-rate gangster mash-up might, and around the time of that first, zany carjacking it ceases to matter where he'll end up. As it happens, Lucky's luck runs out when both the police and the criminal element he is suppressing turn against him. War breaks out between the evil and slightly less-evil gang factions, a strip club is shot up, passing cars are peppered with automatic fire, and bodies fall like it's the latest thing.
The potentially rich racial politics in play in this new South Africa are invoked with a risible superficiality, as when Lucky's white girlfriend suggests that poverty has a certain glamour for the rich, or a phrase like "We can work it out darkie style," exchanged between two black men, is allowed to drop with a disorienting thud. Turtlenecks worn with thick gold chains aren't the film's only blaxploitation riff, but they're typical of how the film wears its influences: lightly and to largely flashy effect.