40 Sticks (2020, Kenya)

This thriller is so eerily similar in parts to the Spanish film, Below Zero (2021), that you have to wonder whether a scriptwriter somewhere between Spain and Kenya – in Algeria, perhaps – was touting the outline of the story to film producers in all directions, and it got picked up by two filmmakers simultaneously.

It’s not below zero in this film, but it’s cold and rainy when a high security escort of eight death row prisoners sets off from the Maza Minimum Security Prison to the Kivu Maximum Security Prison, a standard 12-hour drive that they hope to do in 7 or 8 by taking the back roads. Now, we assume that Maza is a minimum-security prison because both the uniforms and the escort bus have that emblazoned on them. So you can see why the prisoners would be subject to a high priority transfer, but you might equally question what such dangerous prisoners were collectively doing at Maza in the first place.

The eight prisoners include a man who set his whole family on fire, killing five children; another who opened fire in a mall, leaving 70 dead; the Reverend John Paul (Cajetan Boy), an evangelist whose congregation drank the Kool-Aid to bring them unwittingly closer to the Lord; and all four members of a longstanding Nairobi gang, who committed armed robberies, took on paid hits, and kidnapped a child who then died of asthma. Their leader is Pablo (Robert Angengo), whose daughter was effectively orphaned after the police employed a ‘shoot the suspect’s wife first, ask questions later’ policy; his team comprises Biggie (Mwaura Bilal), the scarred, mute Majuju (Ywaya Xavier), a man much biggier than Biggie and whose stepmother cut his tongue off when he was ten, and Mustafa (Andreo Kamau). They are supervised by an experienced, no-nonsense prison officer, Amigo (Arabron Nyyeneque), a driver, and Dakari, a newish officer notable for his ineptitude.

Things look ominous when escort vehicle No. 40’s path is blocked and they are forced to use an alternate route, a wildlife park track, where the speed limit is 15 kph. And, sure enough, the bus soon goes through some spikes that have been laid across the road, crashes, and can’t be restarted. Amigo decides that they will all walk back to the main road in the dark, the prisoners in shackles, but when one of the more dispensable of the eight – perhaps the man who raped an 8-year-old girl and plucked her eyes out – gets ripped away, presumably by a wild beast, leaving only a bloodied, shackled hand, they sensibly decide to return to the bus for the night.

But then, mysteriously, one by one, they are found with their throats cut. Silently. Dakari and Amigo are both briefly taken hostage and have their weapons and cuff keys taken, with no great consequence (Dakari has forgotten to load one of the firearms), the men are in and out of their shackles, depending on who has the keys… and whenever the light goes out, one winds up dead and all the others look around feverishly to identify who the killer is. At the same time, two young men employed by Pablo to ambush the vehicle (had it gone down one of the expected routes), get bogged and strike out in the dark, looking for the van; Kevin, who is a gangster-in-training and also a bit of a scaredy-cat, providing some light relief. As does the Reverend, who annoys everyone by incessantly singing hymns and quoting Bible verses.

As the numbers of officers and their charges both dwindle, some panic starts to set in. The gangsters start to wonder whether the killer is one of their fellow gang members who is keen to increase his share of the proceeds from their last job, which are hidden at a safe house, the location of which only Pablo knows. The killings that occur inside the closed vehicle are the most disturbing, and inevitably lead to the conclusion that, if one of the chained prisoners is not responsible, they must be the work of a zombie or supernatural being, or maybe Divine retribution. Or a shapeshifter, such as a lion that can turn into a scalpel and squeeze through the gap in the bus’s doors to slit the prisoners’ throats. Or that British magician, Dynamo, perhaps. Or a ninja who remains hiding in plain sight, stuck to the roof inside the van, if only the others would look up.

I’m not sure whether red herrings are indigenous to Kenya, but they would appear to be not uncommon just outside of Maza. Which works out fine, for the film’s climax is unexpected and satisfying. Unless  you had money on it being Dynamo or a metaphor for the deadliness of COVID transmission in confined spaces.




Screening on Netflix

Posted on April 27th, 2021 at 10:42 pm. Updated on April 27th, 2021 at 10:42 pm.

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