Any movie with Orlando Bloom in it is getting an extra star this month because he recently did what so many of us have longed to do: He took a swing at Justin Bieber. Hell, I’d give him five stars if he had landed that punch, but the Beaver was saved by his entourage before “manning up” and taking the fight to Twitter.
But I digress. “Zulu” — not to be confused with the 1964 Michael Caine classic — is a hard-boiled crime film that has Bloom and Forest Whitaker as detectives investigating a grisly series of drug-related murders in post-apartheid South Africa. Bloom is short-fused, alcoholic and sex-addicted; it’s the sort of “Bad Lieutenant” role that you don’t expect to see him in, but he does a decent job playing a wreck for a change.
French director Jerome Salle, best known for his film “Anthony Zimmer” (2005) — which was remade into the Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie film “The Tourist” — works off a novel by Caryl Ferey and does a decent job of using South African specifics of location and dialect to bring a fresh feel to a well-worn genre. Unlike 2005’s “Tsotsi,” this film doesn’t have a lot of pious liberal sympathy for criminals; instead it shows both blacks and whites affected by the gang violence.
Central to the film’s story is how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed the apartheid regime gave way to a government run by the African National Congress. Former officials were pardoned for their crimes in exchange for confessing to them, which shed light on many of the injustices and atrocities that occurred, but often allowed the perpetrators to stay in power.
The ghosts of the past hang heavily over Ali Sokhela (Whitaker), chief of the Cape Town homicide squad, who bears the scars — mental and physical — of both the violence and police brutality in nonwhite townships during the apartheid era. He’s now committed fully to law and order — a momma’s boy who’s curiously celibate, seemingly dedicated to his job alone. His white partners Epkeen (Bloom) and Fletcher (Conrad Kemp) question how he can work with their boss, Kruger (Danny Keogh), who was a torturer during apartheid.
“We decided we were going to live together,” says Ali, reflecting on the end of apartheid. “The past is the past. What would you have preferred, retribution?”
Yet the past cannot be kept at arm’s length, as the three cops discover when investigating an upper-class white girl’s murder, which seems tied to a sketchy, new street drug causing dementedly violent behavior in heavy users.
“Zulu” starts off like your typical buddy-cop movie, but gets harrowingly violent in a hurry. The cast commit themselves fairly well, despite some clunky dialogue, and there are as many taut action sequences as there are slack ones. Director Salle seems fond of baring the breasts of his female cast, but to be fair, Bloom gets some scenes in the buff, too, which his adoring fangirl base will undoubtedly be thrilled to see.