|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 23 November 1999|
The plot is familiar though the setting is new. It's the old one about the exile brought back home by a death in the family, only to discover that (in this case) a brother has been corrupted by the bad guys. It's up to the prodigal son to set things right. Ice Cube is improbably cast as Vusi Madlazi, who in 1983 was a radical activist (Thokozani Nkosi) protesting apartheid in his native South Africa. Captured by the state authorities, he's given a choice: death or departure. He chooses exile, moving on to San Francisco.
In 1997, now played by Ice Cube, he returns to South Africa, drawn by the death of his father. Somewhere along the line, he's not only totally lost his South African accent and forgotten every word of his tribal language, but developed standard street-wise American black dude attitude and patois. He's supposedly connected with a university in the Bay Area, and working with underprivileged children, but sounds like a gangsta rapper.
He's the eldest brother in his family, who live out in the country; Ernest (Sechaba Morojele), the next youngest, is a freedom fighter who, in a nice touch, has found it hard to drop his violent ways. (The nice touch is pretty much erased by events later in the movie, in which his violent attitude turns out to be highly useful.) The youngest brother, Stephen (Eric 'Waku' Miyeni), has disappeared into Johannesburg, and hasn't been heard of for some time.
Ernest gives Vusi their father's spear, and urges him to try to find Stephen before he returns to the States. This eventually brings him into contact with Karin (Elizabeth Hurley), the white stripper who lives next door to Stephen -- and whom, we soon learn, was his girlfriend. In the slowly-developed plot, Stephen finally turns up, but he owes money -- or his life -- to smooth, smug West African drug kingpin Muki (Ving Rhames). Vusi sticks around to help out, and eventually has to take up weapons against Muki and his gang.
By far the best thing about DANGEROUS GROUND is Ving Rhames, one of the most charismatic, powerful and downright likable actors working today. When we first meet the soccer-obsessed Muki, who almost always has a small sardonic grin, he's dressed in tribal clothing, watching a game and sucking on a chicken foot. He's arrogantly contemptuous of everyone around him, and views the world as a variation on soccer.
He's charming as hell, and even more evil; he delights in his sheer rottenness, and when he's on screen, you can't watch anyone else. His role really amounts to just an extended cameo, but when he's on screen, DANGEROUS GROUND briefly bursts into life. Eventually Rhames is going to get the role that will propel him to full-fledged stardom; as the saying goes, the camera loves him -- and he loves the camera. He is a major asset to every movie he appears in, especially so here, since the rest of the movie doesn't amount to much.
Ice Cube has given some good performances; this is not one of them. He plays Vusi with a perpetual frown, and cuts huge thick steaming slices of attitude with every scene. He's hard to like, especially when the script alternates between depicting him as ridiculously naive and righteously angry. Hurley comes across better as the stripper, but her role seems unnecessary.
The screenplay (by Greg Latter & director Darrell James Roodt) has Vusi being almost as racist as the whites during apartheid. When Karin asks if his fiancée back in the States is white, Vusi sneers contemptuously -- how could she ask such a ludicrous question?
The end of apartheid certainly didn't mean the end of racism by whites in South Africa, and Roodt's decision to briefly depict the very real South African Nazi group, racist thugs and casually racist hotel employees is entirely appropriate. But then what are we to make of Vusi's contemptuous response to Karin's innocent question as to whether his girlfriend is white or black?
But this stuff is largely peripheral to the basic idea that drugs are harming the blacks of South Africa every bit as much as apartheid did. But the movie fails to make a case for this claim, because it's a standard crime melodrama in which, after all, someone has to be the bad guys. We're not shown anything like the results of drug use; no one comments on police efforts (or even if there are any); having Muki be from another country in Africa diminishes the idea that this is a South African problem.
It's not even very good as an action melodrama. A few of director Roodt's films have been released in the U.S., including CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY (1995), SARAFINA and, uncharacteristically, the limp comedy FATHER HOOD. All of these have the same problems with pacing as DANGEROUS GROUND, which is not helped by occasionally switching between color and black and white in the action scenes.
Just as there's nothing special (except Rhames) about DANGEROUS GROUND, so is there nothing special about New Line's by-the-book DVD. It reproduces the theatrical experience reasonably well, including the second-rate sound recording, and offers both pan-and-scan and LBX versions on the same side of the disc.