Action movies are considered malleable. So are horror films. Science-fiction fits that bill as well. Westerns are perhaps a more dubious proposition regarding their potential to ply themselves to various themes, subgenres, or even locales. So many of their tropes are deeply ingrained in what the great directors of yesteryear brought to the world. As if ready and willing to defy expectations, out of seemingly nowhere comes the South African writer and director duo of Michael Matthews and Sean Drummond with a western set in a country — and very specific area of said country — where precious few would think of telling a yarn with gunmen, fedoras, and standoffs.
Five Fingers for Marseilles sets itself up by presenting a quintet of close friends in the blossoming years of teenage-hood. They inhabit a particularly isolated area of South Africa where colonialists long ago had natives build train tracks for new frontier towns baptized with famous European city names, this one being Marseilles, and brand themselves the eponymous team name as they fight corrupt law enforcement figures that bully the citizens. When one such daring escapade of resistance goes south in the worst way, their lives are changed forever. Flash forward a decade or so: one of the Fingers, Tau (Vuyo Dabula), returns to Marseilles, where on the surface things look to have changed for the better, but it isn’t difficult to discern corruption that infects the land. A bruised man, Tau is faced with a tall choice…
Lovers of westerns and action films should rejoice at what director Matthews, his crew, and cast have delivered with Fingers. Their efforts result in more than a curiosity, but an accomplishment as far as extending the breath of a genre goes. The ‘revisionist western’ is a term that has been tossed about regularly over the past few years, and said expression is generally used aptly. Fingers straddles the line between bending and twisting some of the rules whilst still staying true to the genre’s sources, and caps things off by setting its serpentine adventure in a beautiful, harsh, and quite unexpected landscape. The film is foreign, comprised predominantly of black, South African actors speaking the local dialect, yet familiar with how it presents the story of a burdened hero straddling into town to clean it up. If ever there was a case of arguing that a western movie feels the same but somehow different, Fingers is a prime candidate.
The idea of the locomotive being the guiding light towards ‘civilizing’ a newly found land for colonialists is nothing new. Fingers takes that basic concept and expands upon it with the South African contextualization, such as these peculiar towns named after popular European destinations, and the uneasy, one-sided relationship with white South Africans. There is also the very geography of Marseilles itself, with its slightly more economically efficient neighbourhood resting at the bottom of a hill, and its veritable slum atop, which is where one of the former Fingers, Loreta (Zethu Dlomo), runs a tavern with her father.
For all that help sets the film apart from the pack, Five Fingers for Marseilles relishes the opportunity to engage in the warm familiarity of the genre. Where a film that simply apes tropes can easily come across as lazy and uninspired, Matthews and company make a truly engaging, visually arresting tale of redemption and revenge. Not only does the film look stunning (to say nothing of the fact that the story takes place during a uniquely cold season — not something that screams ‘Africa’), but its cast is excellent. Vuyo Dabula lives and breathes the role of a misguided renegade prone to violence that finds himself given the opportunity to right some wrongs, and Hamilton Dhlamini is genuinely intimidating as lead villain Sepoko, who refers to himself as ‘The Ghost.’ Lizwi Vilakazi as Sizwe (Tau’s nephew) convinces as a young gunslinger with a chip on his shoulder, much like Tau himself in his younger days.
To cap it off, those that come to the film for action shall not be disappointed either. While the filmmakers award a respectable amount of the runtime to develop characters and story, they do not shy away from presenting rollicking, very R-rated action sequences. With confident spatial geography and intelligent edits to properly highlight grisly bullets hits (and sometimes worse things than that), Fingers knows how to deliver the goods with regards to the genre’s more visceral qualities. There are even a couple of standoffs, one of which works as a dramatically satisfying coda to the entire picture.
Five Fingers for Marseilles both pleases and surprises. Western fans will get what they want, as will movie lovers that want an action film with a legitimately different flavour. The South African film scene is not one that can yet boast international renown, but certainly, a film like this one will go some ways to rectifying that.