Movie Review: Santana

Santana is an action thriller set in Angola, tracking two brothers who decide to take down the drug cartel linked to the death of their parents. The film is written and directed by Maradona Dias Dos Santos and Chris Roland and stars Paulo Americano and Raul Rosario. While originally released as Dias Santana in 2016, the film has now been re-released to streaming platforms as Santana. The Angolan/South African production mix is carried from the crew and locations through to the casting including several local actors in Rapulana Seiphemo, Nompilo Gwala and Hakeem Kae-Kazim.

Santana had tremendous promise sporting some heavyweight South African acting talent and essentially modelling itself as an African version of Elite Squad. Instead of Rio de Janerio, we have Luanda, where a determined and merciless police task force is trying to crack down on crime by smoking out drug dens and eliminating kingpins. The story picks up as a flashback to a home invasion in which two boys are left orphaned after witnessing their mother’s death. Fast-forwarding 30 years, the boys have become cops with serious clout, divergent in their style and standing within the community. Picking up on the trail of the cartel, the double team clash as one seeks justice and the other revenge.

This was a great concept considering the demographic similarities between South America and Southern Africa. Santana was ripe with potential, leveraging the slums, tapping into the theme of rampant crime, brutal response forces and making it personal by way of a vendetta. Unfortunately, being a low budget action movie they were ultimately too ambitious and misguided in the final execution. While aiming for the lofty heights of an intense drug wars thriller like Elite Squad, the film plays more like a grounded G.I. Joe.

Action is an incredibly difficult genre to master. Shooting action requires days in exchange for minutes of footage and smaller productions will struggle to dedicate that kind of time and resources to getting it right. Santana has a clue but is functioning as if everything was gleaned from simply watching similar action movies. It worked for the eclectic world of former video store clerk Quentin Tarantino but just comes across as cliched, substandard and uninspired when done on the fly and like so many times before. Action doesn’t necessarily need to be bloody to be effective but Santana’s multiple sniper head shots are basic at best. The action is urgent but doesn’t have a sense of consistency, drawing your attention to the cool shot moments and struggles to raise dopamine levels. You’ve seen it all before and handled better, making it seem like an attempt at a copy than forging its own path.

“You want to know what DNIC stands for? So do I.”

When it comes to casting, it would have been more believable if they’d established the Santana brothers had different fathers. This would have informed their characters, the interpersonal friction and made their fraternal link more convincing. Americano is brooding and has great screen presence opposite Rosario’s play-by-the-rules vibrations but both are wasted on two-dimensional characterisation. This extends to the rest of the cast, more specifically the heavy-hitters in Seiphemo and Kae-Kazim.

The story line could have also used more thought in terms of explaining why they waited three decades to exact revenge and take down a known and entrenched drug cartel. Watching with subtitles, these aspects still weren’t clear and the dialogue seemed like it was just there to fill the dead air between action sequences, macho posing and wearing action man outfits.

It’s easier to understand Santana if you consider the limited experience at play with it effectively being a feature film debut for Maradona Dias Dos Santos, Paulo Americano and Raul Rosario. Chris Roland brings his wealth of producing experience but it’s as if someone who loves film decided they wanted to make a cool action movie with their friends by saying “how hard can it be?”. Whether intentional or partially salvaged, the net result explains why it’s so important to refine your screenplay and get most of the thinking done before calling “action” on Day 1. It looks cool, you can sense the earnest intentions of the filmmakers but it’s riddled with fundamental story and technical issues.

It’s one thing to go for a SWAT style actioner but switching into the realm of black magic in the third act will derail your tone and probably capsize your film. Using a rock-steady soundtrack to energise Santana just falls in line with generic action and it would’ve been more refreshing to immerse audiences into the setting’s culture. This is even more obvious against the backdrop of Africa, a continent of rich musical tradition, with the language shifting between English and Portuguese. The colour scheme seems to give Luanda a beyond-the-Mexican-border glow with a typical drug factory basement to try and connect Elite Squad by way of Hollywood style. Yet, the treatment could have been much grittier, fresher and less procedural.

Santana seems like it was made in the 1990s or is at least trying to capture the spirit of the era. Glorifying the action hard men and romanticising the villains, this is perhaps why the G.I. Joe naivety resonates so strongly. While the filmmakers include a tough girl in the mix to “level the playing field”, this doesn’t take away from the outmoded attitudes. The police locker room talk has a misogynistic edge and this ugly streak is carried through the rest of the film. Female characters are underwritten, exploited, sexualised, expendable and relegated to the bit parts making it seem toxic, out of touch and offensive.

This low budget action thriller has a good cast, makes a smart geo-shift for Elite Squad style entertainment and leverages its world class shooting locations but is Swiss cheese if you look too closely. You can sense the noble effort clashing against the out-of-depth uncertainty but it’s all just too overcooked to warrant your attention. Santana hits the mark when it comes to raw passion but probably would’ve been better served as a The Disaster Artist style film-within-a-film comedy drama or mockumentary about an ambitious new film-maker making an action thriller.

The bottom line: Misfire