Dir/scr: Ralph Ziman. South Africa. 2008. 118mins.
The third feature of Ralph Ziman, the new South African action movie Jerusalema is reportedly drawn from actual events. More accurately it is inspired from the watching of a lot of movies, combining and cannily poaching parts of the original Scarface, Superfly, GoodFellas, New Jack City and American Gangster. It's well made and engagingly played, but it is finally much too derivative and cartoonish to gain much individual expression on its own terms.

The movie's ostensibly a hood movie, chronicling the spectacular rise of a guerrilla entrepreneur who utilises his street smarts, force of personality and a rapidly changing social order to build an empire. The difference is that the movie's setting is Johannesburg, but the filmmakers' effort to shape the work politically and acknowledge the historical and cultural repercussions of the country's tragic racial history is both didactic and crudely applied. It also results in a mirror plot structure of Phillip Noyce's recent Catch a Fire, framed around the Javert-like racist police detective determined to bring him down.

The movie premiered in the Panorama in Berlin, where it played like gangbusters in its first public screening. Part of the new renaissance of South African filmmaking, the movie is a hybrid and far closer to Hollywood that makes it too exotic for mainstream tastes and too violent and genre-bound to play as an art house title. Even so, the movie features a charismatic lead performance by Rapulana Seiphemo and strong production values that increases its commercial potential. Apart from southern Africa, the movie's strongest audience is ancillaries in English-speaking territories.

The movie's told in an elaborate flashback structured in the form of a journalistic interview. The story moves from 1994 to the present. Ziman's script suggests how the post-apartheid social transition created a 'new Jerusalem,' of unrivaled economic opportunities and a black gangster underground. Lucky Kunene (Seiphemo), a dirt poor street kid from Soweto, models himself after Karl Marx and Al Capone. He traces his rambunctious and flamboyant criminal upbringing, beginning by stealing cars at gun point with his best friend Zakes (Nyakale) before moving into more frightening and potentially harmful forms of robbery and graft.

Realizing the short term existence of that kind of lifestyle, Lucky transforms himself into a businessman real estate developer who seizes on a plan to control the lucrative housing projects of the Hillbrow tenements. Lucky proves too good and smart at his new post, setting up a conflict with a Nigerian drug lord and the police detective (Hobbs) who's innately suspicious of his activity.

Jerusalema is fast, taut and has a nervous energy and vitality. The movie is really about other movies, and Ziman rarely finds a fresh or innovative angle to set his action. Also, the effort is so transparent there is rarely a moment in the film that does not feel imported from somewhere else. In the most blatant instance, a criminal steals an idea from Michael Mann's Heat in staging his own robbery.

The imitation is very sincere, but it also makes the work dramatically unrevealing. Every time the director tries to find something new or different to say, like Lucky's improbable romance with a beautiful upper class Jewish woman (Meskin) or deal with the complex racial politics of contemporary South Africa, it feels both awkward and naïve. The compelling, good looking Seiphemo is quick and alert in the lead role. He holds the screen, but he is ultimately stranded by the story's predictability and lack of originality.

Production companies
Muti Films
Moviehouse Entertainment

Executive producers
Ronnie Apteker
Mark Vennis
Gary Phillips

Tendeka Matatu
Ralph Ziman

Director of photography
Nicolas Hofmeyer

Production designer
Flo Ballack

David Helfland

Alan Lazar

Main cast
Rapulana Seiphemo
Ronnie Nyakale
Robert Hobbs
Shelley Meskin
Daniel Buckland
Kenneth Nkosi
Jafta Mamabolo
Motlatsi Mahloko
Jeffrey Zekele