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There are a lot of interesting films coming out of Africa right now. Here’s Saloum, not perfect but pretty damn exhilarating for its first half at the very least. It’s an open homage to Tarantino putting colourful characters with unexpected skillsets into tense situations and then watching as the pinball-machine consequences play out.

Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot gives us a fascinating opening shot of a shadowy figure entering what might be a lake with a gun. What are we about to see? A western? A sci-fi movie? A war movie? A revenge drama? There are flavours of most of those in what Herbulot eventually delivers. But first let’s meet the team: a trio of salty hard-bitten mercenaries called Bangui’s Hyenas, an A Team style crew who have flown out of a war zone with a haul of gold bullion during a military coup in Guinea Bissau.

And they look like they’re going to get away with it until their plane starts losing fuel and they’re forced to set down in the Saloum Delta in Senegal – cue pictures of almost unimaginable lushness and the sound of location managers worldwide making a note to visit.

Comedically, this hard-bitten trio and their drug-dealer hostage/passport take refuge in a holiday camp run on communitarian principles – they get food and lodging and in return have to carry out tasks, like cleaning or helping with the planting of crops.

Here, Herbulot pauses, spaghetti western style, to introduce the guys by name and in fetching close-up: Chaka (Yann Gael), the handsome decisive leader in shades night and day; Minuit (Mentor Ba), the mystically inclined silent type with bleach-blond dreadlocks to his waist; Rafa (Roger Sallah), a hairstyle and personality borrowed from the A Team’s Mr T at his most pitying of the fool; and down the league a chunk, their prisoner-in-all-but-name Felix (Renaud Farah), a Mexican whose job is to quake and quake a little more.

At the camp they meet deaf-mute Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a woman who meets the Hyenas’ gaze and who communicates via sign language. And it turns out, in one of the film’s brilliant bits of early plotting, that all the Hyenas can sign too. Who cannot these days, they kind of shrug.

Add in a cop who seems to have arrived suspiciously from nowhere, and the stage is set for a showdown as the men, who have hidden the gold en route, are challenged for possession of it in ways familiar from Sergio Leone movies.

Up to a point. “Once Upon a Time in Africa” is the tagline on at least one of the posters advertising the movie, calling to mind both Leone and Tarantino. But it’s the Tarantino-scripted Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk till Dawn where the second half of Saloum gets its inspiration, as fears about gold are replaced with a fight for survival against supernatural forces.

Minuit meditates
Minuit is an unusual sort of bandit

At around the same time Herbulot’s screenplay has revealed that it’s no accident that Chaka has brought his team here: he has a score to settle with the past.

Herbulot’s original cut came in at around two hours 20 minutes whereas the version doing the rounds at the moment is around one hour 15. I suspect the cutting came largely from the movie’s second half, which (according to interviews with Herbulot) featured Awa more.

I’ve love to say I loved this all the way through, because the good stuff is so good – the cinematography is as sharp and bright as it’s possible to get without causing paper cuts, Reksider’s soundtrack has taken on board the brief (Morricone by way of West Africa) and is a bubbling mix of the lively, dramatic and tuneful punched up with drums high in the mix. The scenery is exquisite – those lakes, those arid expanses. The characters are pungent and likeable in a who-doesn’t-love-a-badass kind of way.

Spaghetti western done in a sharp and knowing African style seems to be what Saloum promises. What it delivers, particularly in its second half, is something quite different, and the film also asks us to stop revelling in Herbulot’s command of genre manipulation and start investing in the characters at an emotional level. The gear change is awkward but Saloum remains stylish and superb to look at to the end. I’d watch these characters again in another movie. Or maybe again in this movie in a director’s cut????

Saloum – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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