A sizzling revenge tale with several surprises up its sleeve
In the midst of a 2003 coup d’état in Guinea-Bissau, legendary mercenaries Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba) kidnap a drug dealer and his cache of gold and take off from a gunfire-besieged runway for distant Dakar. This blockbuster-capping sequence lights the fuse for another film entirely–as their sabotaged plane quickly runs out of gas, forcing the crew and their prisoner to land in the Sine-Saloum Delta of Senegal. Chaka, the cool gloved gunslinger of the crew known as Bangui’s Hyenas, knows the area well from childhood. He points the group in the direction of a nearby holiday retreat compound–but waiting for our crew are the resort’s kindly staff, two oblivious tourists, a shifty-eyed cop, and Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a Deaf woman who regards these newcomers with dagger-eyed suspicion. As much as Chaka, Rafa, and Minuit try to keep a low profile–it’s clear that demons inside and out have other plans for these mercenaries’ unexpected holiday.
Rivetingly directed by Jean Luc Herbulot, Saloum is already a cracklingly interesting game of cat and mouse set along the sun-baked African coastline before it invokes even darker genre spirits. Its 80-minute runtime moves at a breakneck pace, plunging the three leads into moments of ever-shifting chance and peril with nail-biting tension. The film’s beginning takes place post-coup, in the aftermath of the Hyenas’ latest brutal victory–creating a sense of what this trio is capable of at any moment. Their arrival at the compound feels like the uncovering of a long-buried landmine–one false step by anyone could be the trigger of a bloodbath. Even in its most innocuous moments for the film’s first half, Herbulot uses this dreadful anticipation as much as it’s worth, with every smiling gesture a sidestep or parry to avoid exposing the truth. The most compelling weapon in Saloum’s arsenal is its usage of localized sign language–when the Hyenas reveal to Awa they also sign over a group dinner, Awa reveals in turn that she knows exactly who the mercenaries are…but not only is the group oblivious to this fact, they also don’t understand sign language. An elegant spar of signs results between Awa and Chaka, their smiling faces masking their venomous exchange of threats and insults.
It’s one layer of a film that shapeshifts between genres with a constant wit and glee, drawing upon everything from spaghetti westerns to John Carpenter films (which itself runs the gamut between Assault on Precinct 13 to even Ghosts of Mars). As Herbulot and his talented cast and crew propel us from scene to scene, you never quite know what kind of film Saloum is going to be next. Infused through it all is a pulse-pounding sense of ancient revenge–not just Chaka’s or the other characters, but a much more ancient one fighting back against the colonialism that’s seeped into Senegal and Africa at large from both warring tribes and distant foreigners alike. As such, Saloum’s play with genres feels as vibrant and relevant as the timely topics it broaches–while also lending the film a wild universality that should push this film to be a breakout international hit.
Performances are enjoyable across the board–notably that of Juhen and the three Hyenas. Each of the mercenaries illustrates their own pragmatic approach to an increasingly terrifying situation–Chaka through no-holds-barred vengeance (a sequence with a poncho is peak Eastwood), Rafa through closed-minded self-preservation, and most enjoyably Minuit through something more ethereal–one who foregoes gunplay for more supernatural methods via gris-gris talismans and ancient magic. Gael, Sallah, and Ba each lend their characters a fierce individualism that is only bolstered by their presence as a group–with their reliance on one another in the direst of moments realized with kinetic intensity in the film’s latter Raid-tinged action sequences. The standout of the film, though, is Evelyne Ily Juhen’s Awa–she delivers a powerhouse of a silent performance, with each sharp sign of her dialogue rendered as if she were fighting off a crowd with Rafa’s butcher knives. In many ways, Awa is Saloum’s secret weapon–providing a welcome counterpoint to the mercenaries’ machismo in times of both tension and terror.
An unpredictable suspense film that blends the action of a heist film with the spooky scares of a home invasion horror flick, Saloum is a standout new genre-buster from Senegal tailor-made for thrill-seeking audiences at Fantastic Fest and abroad.