When jumping into a genre as defined as the heist film, you must bring something unique to the table. In the case of The Umbrella Men, a South African caper from John Barker, we are introduced to an entirely new world. Featuring a unique background in terms of place and style, Barker crafts a fun but imperfect experience.
When a local musician dies, his son Jerome (Jaques De Silva) discovers he has inherited the club his father operated. Unbeknownst to Jerome, his father had been taking out extra loans, and the bank had come calling for payment in full. Without the money on hand, and unwilling to sell the club to a local slumlord looking to gentrify, Jerome begins to plan a bank robbery.
Most of The Umbrella Men occurs in Bo-Kaap, a neighborhood in Cape Town known for its culture. This places us in a unique environment with colorful buildings and musicians filling the air with their passion. Jerome may have left this area to try to build a stable life, but his reintroduction reminds us that you can never really leave home. The ways that De Silva blends into the environments during group and close shots helps show his familiarity with his neighborhood and people.
Barker pulls double duty, using his screenplay with Phillip Roberst to help fill in the gaps of the culture. We’re introduced to cultural events in the neighborhood including the yearly “minstrel” show that opens up the ability for the hesit. By folding in culturally specific events to build out the heist, The Umbrella Men can play more traditional heist tropes but retain its uniqueness.
Additionally, The Umbrella Men stands out as a piece of visual storytelling. Barker juxtaposes the dingy darkness of caves and tunnels with a Mardi Gras style party for the parade. Vivid reds and yellows pop off the screen. The beauty of brass instruments reflecting sunlight makes for visual splendor. With fast cuts and a somewhat manic camera, The Umbrella Men crackles with energy.
The actors pick up this energy and bring a Soderbergh-style ensemble performance to the film. Barker lets De Silva step into the charismatic lead role, and he does so brilliantly. He must manage the egos and anxieties of his crew. De Silva also brings romcom energy to the screen with Shamilla Miller, adding a wonderful entertaining plot to the mix. Both performers bring eroticism and chemistry, helping bridge the gap between the setup and the heist. Keenan Arrison and June van Merch each add humor to nearly every scene, embracing the zany hijinks of their characters.
While The Umbrella Men surprises in many ways, the typical structure of the film and heist feels like a let down. The film tries to place itself firmly in a lineage with Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky or Out of Sight, but struggles with pacing. A few dips in the story, and some repetitive sequences hurt the progression. Ultimately, tightening up the film by about 15 or 20 minutes might have helped in this regard.
A surprise blast, The Umbrella Men embraces the heist genre and all its quirks. The cast gets its opportunities to be flash charisma and tell jokes. Barker displays a visual flare, and brings a specific experience to life. A fun and entertaining ride, The Umbrella Men envelopes you with its charm and wit.