Ice Cube's trampled 'Ground' Review: Plot has potential, but very American street wisdom feels foreign in post-apartheid South Africa.

February 12, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

What a squandered chance "Dangerous Ground" represents. How promising it seemed, how ordinary it turned out.

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it chronicles a people as they deal with the aftermath of a shattered dream. The grip of the hated Afrikaners finally broken, a black population no longer subject to white whims must face the predations of beasts its own skin color: dope dealers, shooters and gangsters. Sounds just like East L.A.

But the movie, which has a terrific sense of physical reality and equally a feeling of complete freshness, soon comes to stink of the oldest of formulas, the old vigilante justice thing where an aggrieved man finally takes up the automatic weapon, sprays some bad guys, and goes home to live happily ever after, or at least until the next group of bad guys needs to be sprayed.

The American rap star and actor Ice Cube stars as Vusi, a South African-born black who fled to America at 12 and returns 15 years later, thoroughly Americanized, to attend his father's funeral and then to locate the brother who's disappeared into the Johannesburg drug underworld. But Ice Cube, though impressive as a screen icon, is too Americanized to be believable in this role. His language is shaded by the street argot of L.A.; it never begins to sound like the English spoken by the African members of his family, which is far more Britannic and eloquent.

In fact, there's a kind of ugly racial stereotypicality that runs through it. The movie only pretends that Cube is South African and that he's a drug counselor and Ph.D. candidate in African lit at UCLA; it's actually merchandising a secret thrill, which the idea of one of the boyz from the hood, with his American grounding in close quarter battle, drive-by shooting techniques and genius level street smarts, gets involved in an African underworld and his skills turn out to be so much more refined than theirs. Actually, in this respect, the movie it most resembles is "Rambo," where the natural superiority of the white man -- in this case, it would be the American black man -- is the secret subtext.

The only joy in "Dangerous Ground" is offered by Hugh Grant's life partner Elizabeth Hurley, liberated from the chintzy class of the Estee Lauder advertisements, playing a tarty, tawdry Jo-berg stripper and junkie. For some reason it's a quality of Hurley's almost too perfect beauty that she's much better in tough-gal roles; she made her film debut as a Beretta-toting terrorist in "Passenger 57." Sucking cigarettes, shooting up, lying, betraying and talking trash, she's quite an image in this film.

But the great American actor Ving Rhames is wasted as a West African dope dealer named Muki, and the script, by Greg Latter and director Darrell Roodt (a complete hack), has some extremely unnecessary things to say. For example, did Ice Cube really have to proclaim to his purported African family: "Don't be like American blacks. In the '70s, they got their liberation and then they just got high." Excuse me, that's sort of a blanket statement, don't you think, and a nasty one at that.

'Dangerous Ground'

Starring Ice Cube and Elizabeth Hurley

Directed by Darrell Roodt

Released by New Line

Rated R (violence and profanity)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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