The Heist Movie, South African-Style: 'iNumber Number'

The Heist Movie, South African-Style: 'iNumber Number'

By Joonji Mdyogolo


Because who doesn’t love a good cops ’n’ robbers caper?

By Joonji Mdyogolo

Movies about South Africa that make it overseas tend to touch on apartheid at some level or another. Take Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom or the Oscar-winning Tsotsi. If it’s not a biopic about struggle stalwarts like Nelson and Winnie Mandela, South African art on the big screen tends to carry a clear moral message about human injustice and inequality. Heck, even Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, that brilliant futuristic movie that blew everyone’s mind in 2009, had heavy undertones of apartheid-era South Africa. 

[Americans] like it because it’s the same … but different. They completely understand the genre, but they did see something different in this one.

But we South Africans are telling other stories, too. And turns out people want to watch. Case in point: iNumber Number is a hopped-up thriller about committed undercover cops Chili (S’Dumo Mtshali) and Shoes (Presley Chweneyagae) who get swindled by a corrupt superior refusing to pay out the reward they earned for getting some gangsters off the street. (“iNumber number” is South African slang for “score.”) Tired of being screwed over by the system, Chili, the more savvy of the two, decides to join a gang. His goal: to pull off a 3 million rand heist. Shoes, a loyal family man, wants nothing to do with it — but he gets roped into the mess anyway, on account of friendship.

From then on it’s guns, blood, car chases and stunts. You know, the usual.

But somehow, it works — enough to impress the Los Angeles-based production company, Wrekin Hill Entertainment, which plans to remake the film (likely with American stars). “I think it’s a first ever remake of a South African movie,” says Donovan Marsh, the director and writer of the film.

“[Americans] like it because it’s the same … but different. They completely understand the genre, but they did see something different in this one.”

Familiar it is: a straightforward heist movie, plotted around a motley crew trying to steal some money — nothing new there, save for the setting of Johannesburg and the slang and language of South African gangsters. (The dialogue is a mish-mash of the many languages spoken to South Africa: English, Zulu, Afrikaans and Southern Sotho.)

And that familiarity, Marsh says, is precisely the point — only with “brilliant actors who can show emotion.”

That Marsh has got right. His ensemble cast is compelling. It’s his performers — some humorous, one psychotic and many others ruthless — that give the movie the juiciness and tautness of a good thriller. The scene of a gaggle of thugs walking in slow motion, guns cocked, is a recognizable trope, but it still feels fresh. And so does the rest of the movie. It’s a South African movie that asks little of you — for once.  It’s just a bit of snappy entertainment. And that, thankfully, is more than enough.