Indemnity is the new picture from the South African production outfit Gambit Films, the company behind the successful Netflix crime series Blood & Water (2020– ) and the festival favourite Number 37 (2018), a brutally violent twist on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (1954). Written and directed by Travis Taute (who worked on both of those previous projects), the company’s latest offering is a high-octane action thriller that delivers genre thrills in spades over its two-hour running time – even if its plot feels a little too familiar. Our Culture reviews the film here as part of its selection from the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Theo Abrams (Jarrid Geduld) is a firefighter. Or, at least, he was. Haunted by a blaze that claimed several lives, he has been on leave for some time. As he suffers with clear signs of PTSD and resists treatment for his ailing mental health, Angie (Nicole Fortuin) – Theo’s wife and an investigative journalist – receives a phone call from Sam Isaacs (Abduragman Adams). Isaacs claims to have evidence of a vast conspiracy involving the South African government and a shady defence contractor, and tells Angie that her husband is unwittingly embroiled in it. She tries to warn a drunken Theo that his life is in imminent danger, but he refuses to listen. Upon waking the next morning, he finds Angie has been murdered – and he is the prime suspect. As a manhunt ensues, Theo fights to clear his name while being relentlessly chased by Detective Rene Williamson (Gail Mabalane) and General Alan Shard (Andre Jacobs).
If that synopsis sounds like a mash-up of The Fugitive (1993) and Enemy of the State (1998), that’s because it is. At one point, in fact, Indemnity amalgamates key sequences from those two films into a single set-piece; it reworks the hotel chase from Enemy of the State and inserts a tense dialogue scene strikingly reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s first confrontation with Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. As the film moves into its second and third acts, it then comes to borrow plot beats from several other popular action films of the 1990s – though to say which ones would risk spoiling some of its more unpredictable twists and turns. If not for the fact that much of its dialogue is spoken in Afrikaans, Indemnity could easily be mistaken for a studio movie produced twenty-five years ago; it is clearly a love letter to the kind of action thriller Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.
That the film feels like a throwback to the 1990s has its pros and cons. To start with the pros: Indemnity contains some jaw-dropping action sequences, featuring the kind of death-defying stunts that have been largely absent from studio movies since Hollywood discovered the green screen. Jarrid Geduld, in particular, is an excellent physical performer; in a vertigo-inducing sequence, he hangs from a hotel window with only a bedsheet to stop him from hurtling to the ground. The film also features some excellent fight choreography, and captures it in well-shot scenes that thankfully avoid the kind of frenzied editing that has become a staple of modern action cinema. A vicious brawl in an elevator is a particular highlight.
However, the writing doesn’t quite match up to the action. Because it owes so much to other movies, Indemnity produces a near-constant sense of déjà vu. Even as third-act revelations unfold, it’s hard to shake a sense that it has all been done before. Taute’s screenplay is also very heavy on exposition, which gives the film a frustrating stop-start pace. Several wordy scenes (that go on for much longer than strictly necessary) slow the film down so that characters can explain key plot points – often through unnaturally on-the-nose dialogue. With all of that said, though, Taute clearly has a talent for the snappy one-liner, and his direction makes up for his writing; when the film gets back up to speed, it’s easy to overlook its flaws.
And it is important to remember that as much as this feels like a studio blockbuster of days gone by, it isn’t one – so its action sequences are all the more impressive for having been achieved without Hollywood’s resources. Gambit Films is at the forefront of a new wave of South African genre cinema – and while Indemnity perhaps doesn’t quite measure up to Blood & Water or Number 37 in dramatic quality, it is certainly the company’s most action-packed and ambitious project yet.