A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
"Viva Riva!" is the first feature I've seen from the Congo, and the last one I would have expected: A slick, exciting, well-made crime thriller, dripping with atmosphere. The plot would be at home in many countries, but the African locations are a gripping bonus here. You might learn more about Congo from this film than in a documentary, and you'd probably have more fun.
The hero is a good-bad guy named Riva (Patsha Bay Mukana), a charming, fast-thinking con man who has stolen a truckload of gasoline from some crooks in Angola and plans to resell it for a small fortune in Kinshasa. This detail is itself revealing. Some thrillers involve fortunes in gold or diamonds; the poverty and shortages in Congo make a truckload of fuel drums worth a fortune.
Riva is not a cautious thief. He's a partying ladies' man, whose objective in getting money is to spend it. He plans to hold the petrol off the market as gas prices grow higher, and in the meantime, plunges head-first into a shadow world of bars, brothels, conspirators and gangsters. It is his fate to fall head over heels with Nora (Manie Malone), the mistress of a local crime lord, who only perhaps can be trusted. Oh, she likes him well enough. She also likes staying alive.
Soon Riva is being pursued by the gangster's men and also by some very angry Angolans who want their gasoline back. The film's writer-director, Djo Tunda Wa Munga, ingeniously entwines this generic plot with a riot of local atmosphere: street life, homes, dance clubs, whorehouses, warehouses, cops and robbers, connivers and stoolies, torture and mayhem. It is a true achievement, I suppose, to make a Congolese feature that is the rival or superior of any hard-boiled Western film.