Guillermo del Toro once said that half of any story is in its setting. Make a vampire story, for example, and nobody really cares. Make a vampire story set in George W. Bush’s White House, and suddenly everyone’s paying attention. At the time, del Toro was talking about Pan’s Labyrinth, his fairy tale masterpiece set in the Spanish Civil War. Now, there’s an even better example with Viva Riva!
Our story focuses on Riva, a young gas smuggler who just brought in a big shipment. It’s at this point when he goes on a clubbing trip and falls madly in love with Nora, who just happens to be another, more powerful gangster’s moll. Meanwhile, the high-rollers that Riva just stole from have arrived to recover their merchandise by any means necessary.
Really, this film is your basic crime thriller. Decently written, nicely acted and more than competently directed, but nothing we haven’t already seen before. Except for the kicker: The movie is set in Kinshasa, capitol of the Congo. Where most crime thrillers might take place in Vegas, Chicago or NYC, this one is set in a third-world country. This would be interesting enough, but first-time director Djo Tunda Wa Munga uses this to his advantage in some very intriguing ways.
I’ll give you an example: Early on, Riva finds Nora by going out and dancing to find some chicks, as any young criminal flush with cash would do. The difference is that here, due to a power outage and general poverty, they go to some kind of drum circle. There’s no semblance of modern music in the African drums and the firelight isn’t made to look remotely like any rave, but the dancing and the camera work make it clear that this is the Sarahan equivalent of a club. It’s a very fascinating approach, really.
The setting gives the tired story a great deal of novelty, as this is the first film to come from Central Africa in recent memory. It also serves to make our protagonist (and a few other characters as well) sympathetic, since they’re bringing a valuable and necessary commodity to an impoverished people. Yes, they’re doing it partially for their own benefit, but everyone is so broke that money is worth a lot more and the whole country is so crooked that the only way to deal with anyone is through bribery. So it’s hard to hold the characters’ greed against them either, to an extent.
As for our main character, Patsha Bay plays Riva as a man with incalculably huge cajones. This is a man arrogant enough to provoke death threats out of anyone who looks at him funny, yet charismatic (and lucky) enough to easily get out of the trouble he invariably winds up in. The guy’s a smooth operator and it’s easy to see how he came to be such a successful criminal. Which brings me to his love interest.
Nora is played by an absolutely radiant Manie Malone. This is a woman with strength, brains and beauty, the rare criminal arm candy with a moral compass and a spine. Her romance arc with Riva is more than a little cliched, but they compensate for this with absolutely smoldering chemistry. Oh, there is sex in this movie. There’s a lot of sex, there’s a lot of nudity and God help me, it’s really hot.
Through the first hour or so, I was having a good time with this movie. Sure, the fight scenes were kinda sloppy and the plot was kinda tired, but the movie was otherwise quite well-directed. It also helped that the actors were so much fun to watch, even when some of them were playing one-dimensional villains to the hilt. It was fast-paced, it was fun, it was neat.
But then came the third act.
At the start of the third act, a few characters are shot down by a character in the military who really should know enough to confirm a kill. A brief while later, the characters miraculously come back from the dead with no signs of bulletproof vests or ever having been shot at all. No explanation is given. From this point onward, the main characters are all killed off one by one in increasingly unsatisfying fashion. By the end of the film, the last few deaths are so rushed and pointless that it really does feel like the filmmakers had just run out of screen time and/or budget. The end result is a huge anti-climax that serves only to make the movie look thematically muddled and entirely pointless.
Viva Riva! is my least favorite kind of film to review because the good parts are really good and the bad parts are inexcusable. There’s so much to like in this film that it breaks my heart to see the movie slip its landing so horribly. Weighing the pros against the cons, I’d say that a rental is probably the way to go. Just be sure you see it before the year is out, because this one’s already picking up Oscar buzz.