SALOUM (2021) is kind of an action movie, kind of a western, ultimately a horror story. The promotional materials classify it as a “southern,” because it’s from Senegal. It might be the first movie I’ve seen from a Congolese director; his name is Jean Luc Herbulot, and this is his second feature, after DEALER (2014), but he also created a TV show called Sakho & Mangane, which is on Netflix. SALOUM has some ghosty business in it, though, so it gets to be on Shudder.
Before it morphs into a haunting supernatural folk tale, it’s a swaggering, stylish action movie set to bouncy African hip hop and a great score by French dance producer Reksider. And it stars this trio of badass soldier guys. Chaka (Yann Gael, who plays Mangane on Sakho & Mangane), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba) – a.k.a. the infamous mercenaries Bangui’s Hyenas – have been hired to snatch a Mexican drug lord and his suitcase of gold bricks during the 2003 coup d’etat in Guinea-Bissau. They’re introduced walking through streets full of dead bodies, their faces obscured by hooded rain ponchos. But as they march rhythmically up a set of stairs they’re differentiated by their footwear: Chaka in boots, Rafa in shiny Gucci loafers, Minuit with bare feet.
They’re so visually striking, and their camaraderie and the synergistic way they operate together is so cool, that they seem to live up to their legend, even as a narrator tells us not to believe it: “There’s a lot of bullshit out there about Bangui’s Hyenas. Cannibals, sorcerers, shepherds turned into mercenaries. Their names have echoed on battlefields, stories told at nightfall to excite child soldiers high on crack.”
Chaka is the leader, and sort of the central character who turns out to have a secret agenda that the other two have to go along with. Rafa kinda has the most flair, by which I mean he rocks sunglasses, a denim jacket and a flashy black mohawk/grey beard combo. But Minuit is easily my favorite with his long grey dreads and mystic vibe. His trademark move is sneaking up on guys and blowing powder in their faces to knock them out. The ol’ RAISING CAIN maneuver.
They get their guy, Felix (Renaud Farah), and their loot, and escape in a small plane, headed for Dakar, but they find that there’s a slice in the fuel tank – from the shoot out? from sabotage? – and are forced to land. They bury the gold and walk eight hours across sand and lagoons to a remote camp Chaka knows about in Sine-Saloum, “a sacred and protected land” where he says they’ll get fuel and resin to patch the tank. Chaka is so afraid of water that he has Minuit knock him out with the powder before the canoe portion of their journey (reminds me of B.A. being afraid of flying on The A-Team).
The camp is run by a guy named Omar (Bruno Henry) who treats it like sort of a commune. People only have to pay what they want, but “guests perform daily tasks necessary for the functioning of the camp.” So the Hyenas end up doing chores with the civilians, trying not to seem conspicuous. “We pay nothing, but we’re their bitches for three days,” Rafa says. Chaka says he knew Omar long ago, Omar says he doesn’t remember him, and there’s kind of an ongoing verbal dance as Omar compliments Chaka but seems to also be pointing out that he’s suspicious.
And there’s other shit going on. Another guest named Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who is deaf, figures out who they are and threatens to out them if they don’t bring her with them. The Hyenas know sign language and the others don’t, so they’re able to argue with her at the dinner table without Omar knowing. Also there’s a police captain named Souleymane (Ndiaga Mbow) staying at the camp who could be a threat. The tensions finally boil over when Chaka reveals a long-held grievance against Omar, and all the guns come out. This whole thing was a mission of revenge. Only thing is, even the most meticulous plan is gonna overlook something, and in this case it’s that the camp is, as the tagline puts it, “in a mystical area where dark ancestral forces unleash hell upon them,” and Omar made a pact with evil spirits to be able to use this cursed land.
So suddenly the Hyenas are battling something that looks like swarms of locusts or bats but can take on a humanoid shape, and if you hear their sound it makes you all veiny and “devours your senses… until your body no longer belongs to you.” So Awa has an advantage, and the others wear construction headphones for protection. And being the Hyenas they try to figure out how to shoot the things.
This set up of larger-than-life action movie badasses who find themselves fighting creatures from another genre made me think of PREDATOR at first. But of course it’s kinda more like FROM DUSK TILL DAWN – charismatic bad guys on the run, very abrupt switch into supernatural territory, and as much as I love both movies they share the slight weakness that splitting the running time in half like that makes the horror side feel a little short-changed – too short to feel like quite a complete experience. Here it may have more to do with the specific type of horror it turns into. To me the ending seemed a little abrupt because the first half works so well as set up for an action movie that I was hyped for an escalating battle. Turns out it’s not PREDATOR, it’s more like a folk tale or campfire story, the type of yarn that doesn’t lead to a big blowout, but an inevitable lesson. Once I accepted that’s what it was it felt much more satisfying, so I don’t think it will bother me at all on a second viewing, which isn’t out of the question for a fast paced 84 minute movie like this. Regardless of the story, you kinda just want to hang out with these characters again. I wish we could have a whole series of Bangui Hyena adventures.
From what I’ve read the music, the political situation and the mythology of SALOUM are all distinctly West African, but I won’t pretend to know jack shit about those topics. What I can say for sure is that the mixture of this African subject matter with western influences – Guy Ritchie, Robert Rodriguez, Tony Scott, Sergio Leone – not only feels thrillingly fresh, but serves as a beautiful reminder that we all have plenty of things in common. The language of badassery is universal.
Thanks to my friend Rich for recommending this to me in person and Charles (@The8thCurse) for recommending it to me on Twitter.