Death of a Snowman
Director - Christopher Rowley
Cast - Nigel Davenport, Ken Gampu
Country of Origin - South Africa
Discs - 1
MSRP - $19.95
Distributor - Synapse
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 4/5
In Johannesburg, South Africa at the height of Apartheid a vigilante organization calling itself “War on Crime” is taking out the city’s criminal element using the most violent methods at their disposal. Their leader is the mysterious “Snowman” (Madala Mphahlele). Steve Chaka (Gampu) is a crusading reporter looking to learn more about Snowman’s group and how they operate, and his closest friend is dogged police detective Lt. Ben Deel (Davenport), looking to take down War on Crime before anyone else gets hurt or killed. Chaka and Deel agree to work together using their expertise and contacts within the South African underworld to break the vigilantes‘ reign of destruction, but soon the ruling power structure of the city calls their alliance into question, not to mention Chaka’s innocence when the journalist openly admits to sympathizing with the group’s mission to clean up the streets of Johannesburg. When it becomes clear that the real goal of War on Crime to eliminate potential competition so they can rule the criminal underworld of the city Chaka and Deel must put aside their differences and bring them to justice.
Promoted on the DVD case as some kind of lost South African blaxploitation flick, Death of a Snowman (also known as Soul Patrol) is more of a solid action drama with quick bursts of violence. That hardly qualifies it as any kind of exploitation. Even though it was set in South African during the nearly five decades long period of racial oppression known as Apartheid there isn’t much racial tension throughout the story, especially in the relationship between Chaka and Deel that is the emotional core of the film. The only tension comes from the police department’s distrust of Chaka because they fear he might empathize with the group enough to sabotage their investigation, which does carry a undertone of racism but it’s never acknowledged. The movie’s narrative engine is Chaka and Deel and their efforts to put an end to War on Crime while internal dissention in the group threatens to tear it apart before their ultimate aim is achieved.
The plot is predictable but the movie remains highly entertaining through its uncluttered narrative, well-executed action, precision pacing, and the stellar performances by its two leads. I didn’t recognize the late Ken Gampu at first but after looking over his IMDB page I realized that he was one of South Africa’s most prolific actors. He has appeared in films such as The Wild Geese, Zulu Dawn, The Gods Must Be Crazy, a handful of goofy B-movies, and Cornel Wilde’s harrowing adventure The Naked Prey. In Death of a Snowman Gampu is front and center in the action as the reporter who can handle danger with the best of them and the actor is excellent in the role, developing an interesting character with a minimum of expository dialogue. The same goes for Nigel Davenport, definitely the best known actor in the cast and like Gampu someone who has appeared in a Cornel Wilde film (in Davenport’s case it was Wilde’s 1970 apocalyptic drama No Blade of Grass). The British actor had previously worked with world class directors such as Michael Powell and Fred Zinneman over the course of a colorful five decade acting career and he brings that wealth of experience to the role of Lt. Deel. Davenport, who would later co-star with Gampu in Zulu Dawn, has great chemistry with his younger co-star making their on-screen friendship seem authentic and respectful. They get a lot of help from the script by Bima Stagg (Stander) and the sharp direction by Christopher Rowley, making his sole foray into feature filmmaking before becoming a renowned director of television documentaries, not surprising given his flat, almost documentarian approach to Death of a Snowman.
The rest of the cast are a mixed bag performance-wise but some manage to stand out, particularly Mphahlele as the leader of War on Crime with the questionable methods surrounding his political philosophy. The action sequences, including various bloody shootouts and an early chase scene on an airfield, are fun to watch and serve to make a pretty good flick all the more enjoyable.
Bonus Fact: One of the film’s composers is none other than Trevor Rabin, the former member of the prog rock group Yes who later went on to score some of the biggest action blockbusters of the past decade. A native of Johannesburg, Death of a Snowman was Rabin’s first film.
The 1.66: 1 anamorphic widescreen picture presents Death of a Snowman in the best visual presentation the film will probably ever receive again. The transfer is of decent quality but it looks like very little restoration went into this release. Dialogue and the excellent music score come through nicely on the English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack.
The only extra is a grainy theatrical trailer.
Don’t mistake Death of a Snowman for another loony lost grindhouse flick. It is a killer B-movie to the core but it’s of a higher quality than your typical blood-and-guts crime melodrama. Props to Synapse for unearthing yet another cinematic gem.