“Saloum” is a distinctly West African thriller about drug trade-connected mercenaries who escape from a military coup only to face their biggest test in a nature preserve in Saloum, Senegal.
It’s crackling good long before it turns supernatural. And their new foe, an ancient demonic presence depicted as a series of swarming, devil-horned Bigfoot bee beasts, ensures that turn towards a different genre has menace that just pops off the screen.
Writer-director Jean Luc Hebulot (“Dealer”) opens this film with an African proverb.
“Revenge is like a river whose bottom is reached only when we drown.”
Our anti-heroic “heroes” are three members of Bangui’s Hyenas, opportunistic “guns for hire” who can be good guys or bad guys, depending on who pays them the most money for their services.
They’re slipping out of Guinea Bissau, escorting a dealer they nickname “The Mexican” (Renaud Farah) because the military is slaughtering drug dealers and their hirelings left and right during the coup.
Young Chaka (Yann Gael) is handy with a gun and steely-eyed in a pinch. Rafa (Roger Sallah) is bigger, meaner and older and prefers knives and cleavers when dealing with a foe. And the shaman Minuit (Mentor Ba) is their secret weapon, a George Clinton-dreadlocked shaman who keeps knock-out powder handy which he blows in the faces of enemies to get the trio — with Mexican “Felix” in tow — out of one jam after another.
But the small plane they grab and fly out is shot at by the soldiers who show up too late to stop them. Leaking fuel, they can’t make it to Dakar. They come down in the middle of nowhere, Senegal, and need the half-Senegalese Chaka to lead them through a nature sanctuary to acquire fuel and something to patch the gas tank with.
One wrinkle. The tank doesn’t have a bullet hole in it. Somebody punctured it with a knife. That someone — perhaps one of the three hyenas themselves — “sabotaged” their escape with a million dollar passenger and a bunch of gold ingots.
Nothing like gold ingots to raise the suspicion/paranoia level.
The three Africans keep The Mexican drugged as they trek over desert and up the river to Saloum, a wildlife sanctuary that’s home to a work-for-room-and-board (and drinks) hostel.
“Three days here and they will forget all about us,” Chaka insists (in French or Wolof, with English subtitles). He used to know the smiling, accommodating director of the place, Omar (Bruno Henry). All these ruffians have to do is show off their polished side, be civil, and the musician couple, the hired help and the deaf-mute guest Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) will be none the wiser.
A couple of very cool twists. That “labor in exchange for accommodations” deal has everybody distributing food to local villagers, scaring off poachers, cleaning the compound’s bar and planting mangrove shoots at low tide to stave off the rising sea.
“Do we LOOK like UNICEF?”
And damned if all of the three don’t know sign language, which leads not to some friendly understanding with the deaf-mute woman, but to a nasty and very funny stand-off as she reads these soldiers of fortune like a book. Whatever they’re up to, she wants in.
The performances have African authenticity and Hollywood swagger. Most of these guys, and the woman who finds herself trapped in their company, are convincing badasses, which will come in handy when that “revenge” parable comes home to roost, and the ancient spirits of the place come for them.
The action beats are polished and exciting, the locations unique and the violence — when it comes — is visceral and tense.
“Saloum” would’ve been a perfectly-engrossing, taut and tough-minded tale without the “Dusk Til Dawn/Attack the Block” touches. But that addition raises the stakes and puts this conventional African thriller on horror fandom’s radar, and on Shudder, where everybody can stream it.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Yann Gael, Evelyne Ily Juhen, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba and Bruno Henry.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Evelyne Ily Juhen. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:24