At the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), writer/director John Barker unveiled his third feature film, the comedic caper The Umbrella Men. Filled with the sights, sounds, and life of Cape Town, Barker invited audiences to see a few good people do a bad thing for the right reasons. One year later, Barker returns to TIFF with a brand new adventure exploring the aftermath via The Umbrella Men: Escape from Robben Island. With loads of familiar faces and a few new ones, the world of The Umbrella Men is more alive than it ever was, keeping the stakes high and tension low, enabling the audience to have a rollicking good time.
Jerome Adams (Jaques de Silva), Mortimer (Keenan Arrison), Jerome’s cousin Mila (Bronté Snell), and Jerome’s girlfriend Keisha (Shamilla Miller) try to live as inconspicuous a life as possible in the wake of the bank robbery that helped save the Goema Club from the clutches of Jerome’s uncle, Tariq (Abduragman Adams), who merely wanted the land to begin gentrification of the area. What they didn’t anticipate was an ally, in the form of The General (Irshaad Ally), turning against them, thereby aiding Tariq in receiving an early release from prison and enabling Tariq to turn the tables on Jerome and company. Now, not only is the Goema Club in danger again, but Jerome, Mortimer, and Tiger (Joey Rasdien) have been shipped off to await trial at the newly-opened Robben Island, a place which none have ever escaped from. Time for the Umbrella Men to get to work.
If you’re not familiar with the 2022 origin film, don’t worry about it. Smartly, Barker and returning co-writer Phillip Roberts utilize the famed Umbrella Men choir as a framing device throughout the film, kicking things off with them talking straight to the audience, filling us in on the important narrative points of the first film, while also letting audiences know where the characters are now. This creates a quick tempo which the rest of the film follows, never dwelling in one place too long, never losing the rhythm of what matters along the way. Especially with no Cape Town Minstrel Carnival to play off of (a central component to the heist of the first film), the music of the film comes from its own internal rhythm, sometimes aided by the choir popping back up again, like a Greek chorus speaking directly to us about the concerns of the moment. Barker didn’t use this technique in the first film, so there’s a sense that the vibe of Escape is going to be a bit different from the first. This is not only true, but it works to the film’s advantage.
If you need a refresher on the first film, here’s the TIFF 2022 trailer:
In Escape, Jerome no longer has the familial schism that troubled him in the first film and all of the central players are united in their relative goals (working against Tariq or against Jerome). This empowers Barker to focus on the characters more, as well as to create new opportunities for those who didn’t get enough shine in the first film. This is particularly important for both Snell and Miller, who had significant yet smaller roles in the first film, and are moved more to the forefront here, placed more like equals within the narrative. Who else but Keisha and Mila will operate on the outside while Jerome, Mortimer, and Tiger work their angles on the inside? Though Miller as Keisha gets the lion’s share, getting to really have a blast as Jerome’s #1, don’t discount Snell’s contributions either. Returning actors June Van Merch as Aunty Valerie and Kagiso Lediga as Tendeka get a few more moments compared to the previous outing, as well. One of the best things about these films is how Barker doesn’t ensure that only the central cast gets the best lines or displays of intelligence, as both Merch and Lediga get some fantastic one-liners, demonstrating how everyone in Cape Town would be wise not to underestimate either of them. For his part, it seems as though Adams gets more to do here, his villainy allowed to be out in the open, making Tariq a more fun counterpart to Jerome’s general good-heartedness.
Credit to Barker and Roberts, too, for managing to figure out a way to incorporate a heist into his follow-up that feels as natural a solution to the current character dilemma as it did the only option in the first film. And just like that first film leaned into how little the characters know about what they are doing, so does this film, requiring the introduction of a new character, Zinzi Jantjires (Shimmu Isaacs), with a history of a prior character that not only moves the immediate drama forward but creates a connection to the larger unresolved issues of the first film. Isaacs presence and performance make any scene Zinzi is a part of more electric. If there’s a third film, for which seeds are clearly present, one can hope that Isaacs returns in some capacity.
Just like the original story, Escape from Robben Island is a good time even when things get serious. The script does utilize real political tensions and the threat of gentrification as a means to quickly establish the good from the bad, but it never does so too lightly to be disrespectful or too deeply to distract from the central dramatic tension. Utilizing these things also allows for a little bit of the hand-waving that helps both films conclude with ease because who would you rather side with: the person trying to keep Cape Town culture and history alive or the person trying to sell it off to a foreign real estate developer? It’s like saying you’d prefer Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) over Danny Ocean (George Clooney). No one wants that and, in that same vein of smart storytelling, audiences will find themselves stolen once more by this latest heist.
Screening during Toronto International Film Festival 2023.
Head to the official TIFF 2023 Umbrella Men: Escape From Robben Island webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.