Dangerous Ground (1997)

reviewed by
Scott Renshaw

                              DANGEROUS GROUND
                       A film review by Scott Renshaw
                        Copyright 1997 Scott Renshaw

(New Line) Starring: Ice Cube, Elizabeth Hurley, Ving Rhames, Sechaba Morojele. Screenplay: Darrell Roodt and Greg Latter. Producers: Gillian Gorfil and Darrell Roodt. Director: Darrell James Roodt. MPAA Rating: R (profanity, violence, drug use, brief nudity) Running Time: 92 minutes. Reviewed by Scott Renshaw.

Director Darrell James Roodt (SARAFINA!, CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY) has again returned to his native South Africa for the new urban crime drama DANGEROUS GROUND...at least nominally. Yes, the events of the story take place in Johannesburg and Soweto and Sun City, but they might just as well be taking place in New Jack or South Central. I believe that is part of the point Roodt is trying to make -- that post-apartheid South Africa has become a dangerous ground of a different kind, much like the American inner cities -- but he has chosen a singularly monotonous and pedantic way of doing it. Just beyond the nods to African culture and the wall of homilies you will find a dreary guns-and-drugs picture that feels like the least inspired of a hundred guns-and-drugs pictures you might have seen before. Only the accents have been changed to distinguish the guilty.

Ice Cube stars in DANGEROUS GROUND as Vusi Madlazi, a South African-born man who went into exile in the United States in 1983 to avoid political persecution. Now, 14 years later, Vusi returns to his homeland for the first time to attend his father's funeral, and finds his family facing other problems as well. His youngest brother Stephen has not been heard from in months, and Vusi's mother implores him as the new head of the family to look for his brother. Vusi ventures into Johannesburg to find Stephen, finding a country much-changed after the fall of apartheid, as well as finding some unpleasant truths about Stephen. His girlfriend Karen (Elizabeth Hurley) is a white stripper and a crack addict; Stephen himself also apparently has a drug habit. Worst of all, Stephen has stolen $15,000 from an unforgiving drug lord named Muki (Ving Rhames), putting everyone who knows Stephen in danger. Vusi spends the next 48 hours trying to find Stephen before Muki does, dealing with a new South Africa he understands only too well.

The majority of DANGEROUS GROUND consists of Vusi wandering through South Africa facing a variety of urban perils at carefully spaced intervals: a carjacking at the hands of sneering black youths; a racist assault at the hands of sneering white youths; threats from a paranoid coke dealer (co-screenwriter Greg Latter); kidnapping by Muki's henchmen. We are left with little doubt that South Africa has become a place as full of black self-destruction as America's inner cities, and not just because Vusi gets to make laughably sincere speeches to force the point home. "They got free and then they got high," Vusi says of American blacks to his other brother Ernest (Sechaba Morojele); "don't fall asleep...the struggle's not over." Unfortunately, Roodt is so intent on making us see the similarities between the current situations in South African and in America that he doesn't seem to care about the similarities between his movie and other movies about blacks facing a decaying environment. Once you acknowledge the sociological curiosity, you are left with a film lacking anything new or interesting to say as a story.

It doesn't help matters that Ice Cube is woefully miscast in the lead role. Ice Cube has proven that he can act, and he has a powerful screen presence, but the character he is playing is supposed to be a doctoral student in literature who has lost touch with "the struggle" while ensconced in the Ivory Tower. As he marches through DANGEROUS GROUND wielding both an AK-47 and a certain four-letter epithet as though he were writing his dissertation on those subjects, Ice looks about as much like a bookish student as Keanu Reeves. It is also a terribly one-dimensional performance; it often seems that if he didn't have something to scowl at, there wouldn't be any reason for him to have a face. To be fair to Ice Cube, I don't think there's much that anyone could have done with such a ridiculous character. If I were asked to deliver lines like "That's how you fight a war...with education," or, "Guns are for cowards, not warriors," I'd probably spend the entire film scowling, too.

The main problem with DANGEROUS GROUND even as visceral entertainment is that Roodt doesn't know how to do it. He has written himself into a corner by setting up a story like American urban crime stories, but he seems wildly uncomfortable filming traditional action scenes. The result is perhaps the least interesting car chase in recent cinematic history, as two cars chase each other around the spiraling levels of a parking garage, and a climactic gunfight which is edited more with an interest in getting it over with than making it interesting to watch. If this same story had been set in an American city, it would be hooted off the screen for its derivative narrative, stupid characters and limp action. It is certainly depressing to think that black South Africans won a hard-fought struggle against institutional racism only to fall to other foes; it is also depressing to think that movies about blacks in South Africa can now be as obsessed with drugs and violence as movies about blacks in America. DANGEROUS GROUND, yes...and all-too-common ground, as well.

     On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 Boerz n the hood:  3.

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