Movie Review: Heart of the Hunter

One-liner: Casting, character and storytelling challenges undermine this gritty and promising 90s style action thriller.

Heart of the Hunter is a man-on-the-run action thriller from director Mandla Dube, based on the novel by acclaimed and bestselling author, Deon Meyer. Credited as a co-writer alongside Willem Grobler, the adaptation tracks with a retired assassin who’s dragged back into the game when a dangerous government conspiracy with far-reaching consequences threatens to destroy him and his family. Published in 2002, it’s easy to understand Heart of the Hunter’s foray into old school, deliberately tapping into the territory of 90s action thrillers.

While Alfred Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run thrillers prove just how timeless the subgenre has remained, there’s something compelling about this kind of “road movie”. A few years ago, Indemnity demonstrated that South Africa has the ability to craft action thrillers of this ilk, giving Heart of the Hunter a few feint echoes. A family man with a niche skill set, who’s forced to become a fugitive from justice in an attempt to unveil a conspiracy while trying to stay ahead of an army of special forces ensures there are more than a few parallels with Indemnity. This could describe many action movies within the well-worn genre but does draw more focussed comparison due to the timing of these slick local actioners.

To be fair, Heart of the Hunter is mostly faithful to its source material, making it the forerunner in terms of story and giving Meyer more cause if anyone had to kick up dust. Whether Indemnity inspired Heart of the Hunter or vice-versa, it’s not really an issue for the target audience who are just craving some “skiet, skop en donner” with a distinct South African flavour. That is delivered with flair as the 90s style action thriller keeps things grounded with gritty fight and stunt sequences. It’s too easy to phone it in with visual effects these days, making its dedication to keeping it real commendable.

Another highlight is the cast, featuring a stellar local ensemble including: Bonko Khoza, Tim Theron, Connie Ferguson, Sisanda Henna, Nicole Fortuin, Peter Butler and Dann Jacques Mouton. Khoza takes on the action-ready lead role of Zuko with a sense of urgency, Ferguson is grace under fire, Henna is monstrous, Butler sets the ball in motion and Mouton is testament to the cast’s depth having starred in Noem My Skollie. Having taken on a lead role in Flatland, Fortuin delivers an unexpected turn and serves as a common denominator having featured in Indemnity and Heart of the Hunter. It’s Ferguson’s stern lockbox disposition and Henna’s wrestler charisma brand of grotesque that demand more screen time.

Mandla Dube brought Silverton Siege to screen and is entrusted with Heart of the Hunter, managing to coax a similar level of intensity from his cast. Keeping his finger on the pulse of the action, there’s more space to roam than the single location setting of Dog Day Afternoon style heist potboiler Silverton Siege. Delivering yet another driving and intense action thriller from South Africa after Kalushi and Silverton Siege, he’s finding his niche. On the surface, Heart of the Hunter has many strong attributes and powers up with some full tilt action set pieces to contribute to a film with swagger.

heart of the hunter film

“I like my eggs hard.”

Heart of the Hunter leverages its beautiful landscape to full effect, showcasing many great locations across the country with its head honcho motorcyclist riding dirt tracks up epic mountainscapes to contrast with its cityscapes. This wide open spaces approach does add weight, upscaling production values with a roving eye for aesthetic appeal. Then to say its soundtrack doesn’t distract is a compliment, compelling the action with heavy blows and a well-balanced score.

Unfortunately, as accomplished as its collaborators are in their own right, Heart of the Hunter doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. While at first a bit confusing, even for viewers living in post-apartheid South Africa, the building blocks do eventually come together. Strangely enough, it actually helps to have watched Indemnity in being able to get a basic road map for this film. Once the man-on-the-run story unfurls and the puzzle starts to make sense, Heart of the Hunter’s overriding flaws become more apparent.

While the casting is refreshing for a number of reasons, it’s still one of the film’s biggest challenges. In the book, Zuko is Tiny… a hired gun and giant of a man. The Jack Reacher adaptation managed to get by with Tom Cruise, skipping over the considerable physical differences in favour of star power, but Heart of the Hunter falls short. Bonko Khoza has many fine qualities as an actor but is aloof in his performance as Zuko. The character has little texture, a fairly flat arc and is restricted to stereotypes around being a family man and hitman, making him verge on cypher. To make matters trickier, Tim Theron’s natural good guy vibrations make him a problematic enforcer as Tiger – especially when pitted against a distant protagonist. As much as he commands a physical presence like Louw Venter did in Indemnity, he’s almost too likable, further diminished by a security task force that seem to have been picked to enhance Tiger’s stature.

While there are some foundational flaws, the finer details also undermine in Heart of the Hunter. A plain sight rendezvous seems na├»ve at best. A well-timed explosion for a quick getaway may look fierce and cool but just serves to highlight the comedic and contrived undertone of the sequence. Even setting this action set piece against a much more unexpected and gasp-inducing moment doesn’t offset the ridiculousness of the set up. Not drawing enough empathy or depth for Zuko’s character, Heart of the Hunter runs amok with an all-seeing perspective that keeps viewers at an arm’s length and in desperate need of a hero to get behind. Ultimately, there just aren’t enough real obstacles for Zuko to connect the audience and prove his mettle, making this an exercise of going through the motions with a bit of panache.

Heart of the Hunter has the look and feel of a top tier action thriller with a refreshingly grounded and gritty 90s vibration and a game cast. Unfortunately, the muddled storytelling, lack of character connectivity, casting mishmash and some ill-conceived moments continually threaten to capsize all of the hard gains. A promising action thriller and in many ways equally-yoked companion to Indemnity, one hopes that the film does enough to warrant more of these kind of action-orientated projects for the local film industry.

The bottom line: Disconnected

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