Frenetic, sleazy, and entertaining as all hell, Viva Riva! is a stylish and multiplex-worthy crime drama from, of all unexpected places, the Democratic Republic Of The Congo. Set in the Kinshasa underworld, it pits local hoods, visiting gangsters, corrupt military officers, lesbian gumshoes, and shady clergymen against each other in a nihilistic battle for control of a truckload of stolen petrol, which, in the gasoline-deprived city, seems to have become more covetable contraband than a mountain of drugs.
Patsha Bay stars as the eponymous character, who has returned home after 10 years in neighboring Angola flashing a wad of cash and promising nothing but trouble. He’s got far more swagger than sense, which he displays by immediately tumbling for Manie Malone, an imperious gun moll cranked to 11 who’s cozy with the area’s top crime lord. Dragging his old friend (Hoji Fortuna) away from a settled family life with little effort, Bay is soon burning through cash at brothels and nightclubs as he tries to set up a deal for his fuel cache, unaware that the former boss he betrayed has followed him across the border, and that plenty of others also now have him in their sights.
In spite of the obvious character parallels, Bay isn’t exactly Al Pacino in Scarface; the actor always seems more goofball than badass, even when smashing someone with a bottle. But part of the fun of Viva Riva! is the way even the more convincing toughs have to struggle with the country’s capricious infrastructure. The Angolans are arrested by a cop who simply doesn’t like foreigners (but does like giant bribes), one character on the run can’t compete for a far-too-in-demand taxi while another is forced to disguise herself as a nun, and the city’s power sporadically gives out, leaving everyone in darkness.
The debut of writer-director Djo Munga, who’s from the DRC and studied filmmaking in Belgium, Viva Riva! has a sleek international sheen. There are undercurrents of deeper themes of past colonization and war, of old values vs. the allure of greed, but it’s first and foremost an unapologetic B-movie, roaming Kinshasa’s streets and indulging in vice with a sensual, occasionally over-the-top eagerness. “Drink and fornicate—a whole life’s ambition!” someone spits at our default hero, who’s no more a moral center than anyone else in this sordid affair. But given how much more likely a violent death seems for him than any chance at redemption, he can hardly be blamed for wanting to have a good time.