How soon is too soon for a remake? In the case of The Bang Bang Club, not soon enough. On paper, documentary filmmaker Steven Silver’s first narrative feature has all the elements necessary to generate a compelling movie. The subject matter is topical and harrowing, recounting the war-time experiences of four real-life photojournalists, nicknamed “The Bang Bang Club,” capturing the bloodshed and anarchy of post-Apartheid South Africa in the early ’90s. And back in his student days, Silver studied in Johannesburg and saw the atrocities firsthand, so there’s undeniable credibility at play.
In better trained hands, The Bang Bang Club’s subject matter could make for a powerful action-drama on par with Blood Diamond; as is, though, the South African struggles depicted in Silver’s disappointing work are just window dressing for bromance.
Which is why The Bang Bang Club’s disconnect from emotion is so bothersome. Hoping to flesh out the characters, Silver spends more time off the frontlines and in bars and bedrooms, showing how their shared profession deeply affected personal lives. But Silver’s script doesn’t allot the development well enough to justify his approach. Only one of the four, Greg Marinovich (played by Ryan Phillippe), is given a sufficient amount of alone time, yet that translates to subplot about his relationship with his editor (Malin Akerman) that feels rather lightweight alongside the movie’s sporadic yet powerful scenes of in-the-field atrocity.
It also doesn’t help that Phillippe gives the least interesting performance of the bunch. We’ll overlook the fact that his South African accent is distractingly bad; Phillippe’s inability to anchor The Bang Bang Club comes down to his lack of gravitas. With his decision to view the events largely through Marinovich’s eyes, Silver demands a sizable amount of dramatic presence from the pretty boy star, yet he’s not built for it. When emoting over the unsympathetic nature of his character’s job, Phillippe pouts like a spoiled rich kid.
If that aforementioned remake proposal ever catches on, the next screenwriter would be wise to recast Taylor Kitsch and center the story on his character, Kevin Carter. The film’s best acting comes from Kitsch, the former Friday Night Lights star whose biggest move role to date was an underwritten turn as Gambit in the altogether lame X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Here, though, Kitsch uses what little screen time he has to fill his Carter, a drug-addicted, Pulitzer Prize winning problem child, with a playful charisma that masks much darker things within.
At least that’s what’s implied, since The Bang Bang Club so lightly treads on Carter’s sporadic moments of self-deterioration. Compared to the scarce characters moments given to the club’s other two members, Joao Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld) and Ken Osterbrook (Frank Rautenbach), however, Kitsch’s storyline feels like a biographical miniseries.
Unable to handle an ensemble drama, Silver seems more at home whenever The Bang Bang Club turns realistically violent. One scene, in particular, hints at the writer-director’s unmolded ability to deliver a knockout blow. Phillippe, more concerned with snapping a money shot than helping his fellow man, numbly takes photos as a man is beaten, set ablaze, and then hacked with a machete by nihilistic rebels.
The Bang Bang Club bounces around its points of interest with such recklessness that there’s never a strong enough part for the viewer to connect with; it’s like Silver’s dangling a bunch of story facets over the audience’s head.
The Bang Bang Club premiered yesterday as part of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, and opens today in limited theatrical release.