In 2022, The Umbrella Men surprised as a wildly entertaining heist film. The South African caper gave strong Ocean’s vibes and was one of the most rewatchable genre films of TIFF 2022. To our surprise, a sequel to that fun film landed at TIFF 2023. With Director John Barker returning, The Umbrella Men: Escape From Robben Island picks up the momentum. With a jazzy score, bad criminals, and entertaining hijinks, the budding franchise is two for two.
After successfully pulling off the diamond heist, Jerome (Jaques De Silva) and his crew are arrested. However, the money used to purchase Jerome’s club – The Goema – was paid with counterfeit money. After being sent to a remote prison, Jerome’s family and friends help him escape his false imprisonment. Now, they must orchestrate a prison break, catch up with Loukmaan (Dann Jaques Mouton), and stop Tariq (Abduragman Adams) from selling to international bidders.
This time around, the focus of Escape From Robben Island spends less time within the Bo Kaap neighborhood. However, we get well-thought-out expansions of the world. Barker expands the community and families involved. Most interestingly, larger political forces are in play, both from the factions in the criminal world and the literal government. With more political actions in play, the intrigue jumps up a level.
Barker wisely uses the extra time to fill in more information about the characters. Rather than show new sides of our protagonists, we see their various ethos and ideologies tested. As they unravel their personal responsibility to the community and each other, Jerome’s bonds with his loved ones strengthen. It’s a wise move to get the audience more invested in the characters for potential future installments.
Once again, Barker finds a perfect comedic tone that allows Escape From Robben Island to thrive. Zippy one-liners and callbacks help liven the mood. Once again, the standouts of the first film – Shamilla Miller, June van Merch, and Keenan Arrison all deliver standout sequences. When asked to take center stage, Miller and van Merch thrive, with each actress stealing every scene with impeccable comedic timing. Even De Silva feels blown off the screen this time, especially when paired with van Merch’s impeccable comedic timing. Arrison showcases his talent while singing Elvis tunes and fast-talking his way out of trouble. The ensemble is here to play, and they fully take advantage of the moments.
However, moving Escape From Robben Island out of Bo Kaap also makes it feel more generic. The last Umbrella Men movie soared because it felt like we were in a location off the beaten path. This time, we travel to generalized and non-descript locations. The sense of discovery from The Umbrella Men disappears, leaving the film with less energy. Once again, Escape From Robben Island runs a bit too long in the late moments of the movie. An auction can be cinematic, but because of the amount of action in the last feature, the tension never coalesces. While we felt the length last time out, Barker needed to thin this one down.
If Barker and his team want to make a few more Umbrella Men movies, they can easily become a popular calling card. Barker has shown he’s more than competent as a filmmaker, and the cast continues to showcase their unique talents. While a slight step down from the previous entry in the saga, The Umbrella Men: Escape From Robben Island proves there’s still plenty of room for exploration with these characters.