‘Heart Of The Hunter’ Review: Bonko Khoza Leads An Entertaining Action-Packed Political Thriller


Those who watch mainstream action films and nothing else will probably be under the impression that the genre is just full of photocopies of John Wick. But if you widen your horizons, you’ll come across so much variety that you’ll stop talking about action through the lens of John Wick (which is undoubtedly a fantastic franchise). In 2024 itself, I have seen a German film, 60 Minutes, where a guy sprints from point A to point B to get to his daughter in time while knocking out goons left, right, and center. The Indian film Malaikottai Vaaliban mixed wuxia with Western aesthetics for its fight scenes, thereby creating something truly unique. The Brits gave us One More Shot, which stretched the concept of the oner to its maximum. Thailand dispatched Hellhound, which, despite having a shoddy narrative, had some of the most brutal set pieces of the year. Now, Heart of the Hunter has arrived from South Africa to join this illustrious, action-packed roster.

Mandla Dube’s Heart of the Hunter, which has been written by Deon Meyer (who is the author of the novel the movie is based on) and Willem Grobler, opens with a bloody assassination. The narrative then moves forward by several years to show a man named Zuko Khumalo living a peaceful life with his wife, Malime Mambi, and her son, Pakamile Mambi. Elsewhere, a woman named Mo (the head of a private security organization called INGWE) is conversing with her strike team, which is being led by Tiger, and the one who has commissioned the hit, Daza Mtima, who is the future President of South Africa. They are supposed to nab a guy called Johnny Klein because he is apparently a danger to democracy. But it’s actually the other way around. Klein is the one who wants to protect the nation, while Mtima and Mo are actively hunting down dissenters. Zuko was in this business a long time ago, but he hung up his boots after a nasty mission. However, since Klein is on his last legs, he forces Zuko to remember his promise and passes on the torch. Unfortunately, Zuko’s family gets embroiled in this too. Hence, Zuko has to race against time to protect his loved ones and stop the country from falling into the hands of Mtima.

Deon Meyer and Willem Grobler’s writing in Heart of the Hunter tackles everything from the way apartheid eroded South Africa to how capitalism is doing the same to the country in the present day. What is interesting, though, is that they are not only implicating white people for the atrocities that the people have suffered, but also taking black people who benefited from these societal evils to task. So, in a way, the writers are showing that the oppressors get to oppress because a few rotten apples from the oppressed classes shake hands with them. And if it’s not addressed in time, then the oppressed will eventually become the oppressors and hollow out the community from the inside out. I am well aware of the fact that this should be the norm in vigilante and patriotic action films. However, due to the rise of fascism and conservative ideologies all over the world, cinema is going through a phase where uber-macho heroes are fighting “external elements” and punching down on minorities. Hence, it’s refreshing to see a film reckoning with its own past as well as the citizens who live in ivory towers. That said, the character work is shallow and cliche, and the fridging is unacceptable.

I accept my ignorance regarding the cinema of South Africa. The only South African films that I have seen are District 9 and The Lullaby (I’m not counting the popular Nelson Mandela biopics because they are probably Hollywood productions and made by non-South African artists). So, I wasn’t ready for what Heart of the Hunter had in store, and hence, I was blown away by the action. The first siege pretty much hints at the fact that Dube, cinematographer Trevor Calverley, editor Leon Visser, the action directors, and the stunt team are on the right track. The contact, the reactions, and the sound design in all the hand-to-hand fight sequences are simply perfect. Then, out of nowhere, they drop a chase involving a helicopter and a bike, and as a long-time fan of helicopter-based chase scenes, I couldn’t help but applaud it. And standing in stark contrast to these exciting set pieces are the emotional, bloody, and heavy personal altercations between Tiger and Zuko. There is a real weight to their conflict, even though they don’t know a lot about each other, and that’s what makes the finale so impactful.

The performances from the entire cast of Heart of the Hunter are exquisite. Bonko Khoza’s transformation from Malime’s loving husband and Pakamile’s indulgent father to this stoic and relentless warrior is fascinating to watch. The man exploits his sombre eyes to the fullest to convey all the hurt and anger that Zuko is feeling. Connie Ferguson embodies the scheming and ruthless nature of Mo exquisitely. Masasa Mbangeni doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she makes you feel for her by the end of the film. Tim Theron is a force of nature. Much like Zuko, he undergoes a subtle unraveling as you see him shed his facade of professionalism and become totally unhinged, and Tim pulls that off perfectly. Nicole Fortuin is brilliant. There is a moment during a fight sequence where she breaks her zip ties with her shin, and I think I felt my heart skip a beat. Sisanda Henna is intimidating as hell. He doesn’t do a lot, but he exudes a sense of fear that is palpable. Deon Coetzee and Wanda Banda make for a great journalist duo because their enthusiasm for their work is poles apart. Peter Butler, Milan Murray, Boleng Mogotsi, Dann Jaques Mouton, Natalie Walsh, Zoya Pon, and the rest of the supporting cast are all quite amazing.

Heart of the Hunter has a direct-to-video action quality to it, and I mean that as a form of appreciation. Like I said earlier, you need to expand your horizons to learn that there’s more to action than John Wick. But if you go beyond theatrical and OTT releases, you’ll find the realm of DTV action films. They have a unique feel to them, and they have a dedicated fanbase too. They are not as ambitious as a $100 million franchise starter, and they aren’t as flashy as a $200 million Netflix release. They are somewhere in the middle, and, most of the time, they are better than their over-budgeted peers because they are made with passion and conviction despite their limitations. I don’t know the pipeline that was used to get this movie to Netflix, but all I am saying is that fans of DTV action films are probably going to like this a lot. As a fan of action films in general, I am impressed. So, I’ll recommend it to the regulars of the school of action cinema. In addition to that, I hope this becomes the gateway to mainstream and genre-specific South African films.

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Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit loves to write about movies, television shows, short films, and basically anything that emerges from the world of entertainment. He occasionally talks to people, and judges them on the basis of their love for Edgar Wright, Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, and the best television series ever made, Dark.

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