The landscape may have changed, but Viva Riva!'s story is a familiar one: In a corrupt land rife with petty thieves and crooked authorities, the savvy entrepreneur who maintains control of scarce resources can remain alive and prosperous with a deft combination of charm, skill, and luck. We follow the exploits of small-time grifter Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna), who in his biggest heist to date, steals a truckload of fuel from Angola to resell in his native Democratic Republic of Congo (Viva Riva! has drawn considerable interest for being the first movie from the DRC to receive U.S. distribution).
The limp, well-tread archetypes of Hollywood crime thrillers are trotted out: the cold-blooded businessman, looking to recover his stolen fuel, who moves with the slow, deliberate pace of a snake (replete with his own rattle, provided by an ever-active soundtrack); the brutish gangster who controls Riva's hometown and wants a piece of the action; and, of course, his stunning moll, who quickly becomes Riva's romantic fixation. Everyone wants our hero's loot, and his odds of survival—already long in the first frame—become increasingly remote as he chases after this forbidden goddess.
Curiously, rather than a gifted schemer with preternatural foresight, Riva comes off as a bright-eyed, fun-loving charmer—more romantic comedy lead than crafty criminal. His greatest survival asset seems to be a bottomless reserve of luck, and as a result, the action can turn downright cartoonish at times. As Riva unknowingly ducks out of room after room seconds before his assailants arrive, the image of an anvil whistling by his head as he bends down to inspect a shiny coin readily comes to mind. When faced with an angry mob looking to tear him to shreds, Riva calmly offer to buy everyone a round of drinks, magically placating a bloodthirsty horde in an instant. These near-slapstick escapes sit uneasily with the raw bits of very adult sex and cringe-worthy close-ups of brutality that dominate the rest of the proceedings.
As the busy heat of Kinshasa glimmers on screen, we are quickly propelled from shantytown to church, outsized mansion to tribal bordello. Greedy sex and sadistic violence mix with frenetic music, resulting in a full-length celluloid ganga-rap track. The film's enduring message seems to be: life is cruel and short, so be the kingpin while you can; torture, womanize, and extort before you are on the receiving end. This Hobbesian message of hedonism leaves little room for more substantive considerations of the region's longstanding ethnic strife, profiteering police force, and a wrecked economy that forces young men to leave broken families at home. None of which would be an issue—this is an action flick, after all—were these bits not forcefully injected.
Viva Riva!'s all-you-can-eat mentality is its greatest downfall: It could have succeeded as a slick heist procedural in the vein of Ocean's Eleven, a gritty crime drama such as City of God, or a work of social commentary like Favela Rising, but combining these strands leads to an unbalanced exercise that ultimately fails. The production is a grand one however, and not without its bits of high-octane fun, which hopefully portends a rising new wave of Central African cinema.