There’ve been so many bank-hostage thrillers that it’s pretty much a thriller genre all its own. And as such, it’s very hard to make one that stands out from the crowd.
The phrase “as you’ve never seen him before” was long ago worn out by Hollywood hype masters, mainly because it’s compact enough to stuff on the top of a movie poster.
And as a film critic, it’s not necessary advisable to slap the label “soulful” on an African American actor, even when it fits, even when talking about the actor’s final film.
But “Breaking” breaks free of its genre thanks to some terrific performances.
John Boyega is so startling and mercurial in the leading role, playing a Marine Corps vet who holds up and holes up in a bank, claiming his has a bomb, just to let satisfaction of the VA and a crushing student loan trap, that I forget the actor inside the character. This is Boyega as we’ve “never seen him before.”
And as a disrespected, passionate and compassionate police hostage negotiator, the late Michael Kenneth Williams reminds us that we could almost retire the term “soulful” as it pertains to acting with his performance.
This “true story” happened in Marietta, just outside of Atlanta. We meet Brian Brown-Easley on a good-bad day. He’s able to get his little girl (London Covington) on his phone for a warm, what-to-name-the-puppy-I’m-getting-you chat. But he runs out of minutes before he can talk the child into giving the phone to his ex (Olivia Washington).
He’s got a room in a local fleabag motel, but gets a “You paying, or leaving?” dig from the manager.
We sense the desperation. And him looking at that Wells Fargo branch across the street has us worried. Sure enough, he ponders his options and marches in. He eyeballs the cameras inside and thinks some more.
He withdraws a little cash from the chatty, over-sharing clerk (Selenis Leyva, good). And then he passes her a note, says he has a bomb, holds up what looks like a detonator, and asks, with increasing insistence, her to dial 911.
It’s the delay in her getting through, seeing the other bank staff (Nicole Beharie plays the nervous/nervy manager) quietly usher customers and staff out, that sets finally sets him off for the first time.
“I need the FIRE trucks. I need the NEW CAMERAS! I need the X-MEN!…Don LEMON!”
Whatever we think this guy is up to, this disturbed “off your meds” fellow, who just held up a woman who knows everything about him because she took money from his account to give it to him, has his own agenda.
He wants some help with the VA. He needs them to stop garnishing his account for student loan payments.
Abi Damaris Corbin, who also directed, and Kwame Kwei-Armah construct a script around an almost comical lack of urgency from first responders, a cavalier “What are you wearing?” from a 911 operator who figures she can pass on to law enforcement who to shoot, and a lot of folks — inside and outside of the bank — who know what a nightmare the VA, student loans and American policing have become, and sympathize with their unstable captor.
Has the bank manager every been robbed before? What happened?
“They arrested the guy.”
“Musta been white!”
Boyega can overdo the “triggered” thing, flipping out at sudden noises or due to simple paranoia. But he’s good and wonderfully relatable as the lead.
Williams is sharp, deflated and a bit irked (his specialty) as a hostage negotiator poked by SWAT (Jeffrey Donavan, playing the latest in a long line of jerks), forced to sit back and wait until Brown-Easley calls the ex, and a WSB reporter (Connie Britton) BEFORE he can introduce himself and commence negotiations.
The upshot of all that is a feeling of familiarity that the genre inspires, but which this film lightly trips up, here and there.
“Breaking” isn’t “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Inside Man” because it isn’t as good or as original as those two classics of the genre. But Boyega, Williams and Beharie make this well worth our while, a tense and empathetic hostage thriller that could be literally — one last cliche coming — “ripped from today’s headlines.”
Rating: PG-13 for some violent content, and strong language.
Cast: John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Jeffrey Donovan, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington and Michael Kenneth Williams.
Credits: Abi Damaris Corbin, scripted by Abi Damaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 1:43