Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Earlier this year, Michael Bay’s Ambulance (2022) was released. It was a bank robbery whose premise was an African-American marine who becomes in desperate need of money, so he resorts to committing a crime that results in him holding someone hostage. This film, directed and co-written by Abi Damaris Corbin, is basically the same thing, minus all the over-the-top action in which Bay loves to indulge. This is much more subdued and quieter. It’s still a tense thriller, but it’s able to sell the emotions better, mainly because it’s not bombarding us with gunfire and explosions every other minute. Corbin allows for a more intimate scenario to play out.
The poster to this film makes comparisons to Dog Day Afternoon (1975). That classic flick, starring Al Pacino, was a bank robbery tale where it was revealed that the robber’s intentions or his situation spoke to a greater issue. Its issue wasn’t a central theme but rather an interesting side-note. Comparisons to something like John Q (2002) are probably more appropriate, even though that film, starring Denzel Washington, wasn’t a bank robbery. John Q boiled down to a similar hostage situation where a Black man is holding people against their will. Arguably, Pacino and Washington’s films had their protagonists taking hostages in order to help someone else. Arguably, Pacino and Washington’s characters were acting selflessly. That’s not necessarily the case here.
John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Attack the Block) plays Brian Easley, a former marine who is essentially homeless. He’s currently getting disability payments, but those payments have stopped. He’s staying at a crappy motel and without those disability payments, he’ll be kicked out. He doesn’t want to live on the streets. He has a daughter but he’s separated from the mother of his child, so staying with her doesn’t seem to be an option. His payments were from the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the VA.
Brian decides to hold the employees of a Wells Fargo bank hostage. He wants the money that the VA owes him, but he doesn’t want to take it from the bank. He wants the VA to issue the money itself. The bank hostages are just a means to that end. In Dog Day Afternoon, the issue was arguably that of transphobia or LGBTQ equality. Here, the issue isn’t arguable. It’s veteran healthcare. It’s not simply physical welfare but also mental health too. The United States has been criticized for failing in a lot of cases to provide healthcare for veterans, particularly in regard to their mental well-being after their service has ended.
There have been a number of films that have addressed the toll that war and military service can have on men and women. Films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) did so in regard to World War II. Born on the Fourth of July (1989) did so in regard to the Vietnam War. Recently, Thank You For Your Service (2017) did so in regard to the 2003 Iraq War. That film took aim somewhat at the VA, but it didn’t sharply criticize a specific VA policy like this film does. This film specifically criticizes a loophole in the G.I. Bill that can penalize veterans trying to get education, a loophole that doesn’t account for mental health issues like PTSD, which only now people are recognizing as a serious problem, if not an epidemic. This film shines a bright light on that loophole, which it can, due to the fact that this film is based on a real-life person who was the subject of a real-life magazine article by Aaron Gell.
In addition to the VA critiques, this film also delves into some issues that could put it on a similar level with other Black Lives Matter films. A Black Lives Matter film, or BLM film, is any film that has come out, particularly within the past decade, that deals with or addresses the issue of Black people’s relationship to law enforcement, specifically street cops, and how many interactions have resulted in a police officer killing an unarmed Black man. The situation in this film is a bit different. In this film, Brian is holding people hostage and saying that he has a bomb that he’ll explode. Even in a film like John Q, the cops always have snipers set up to shoot and kill any person holding innocent people hostage. However, there are other avenues that are pursued, namely negotiation, which hope to avoid using snipers, but the question raised here is the same as Gell’s article, which is “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him.”
Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth and American Violet) co-stars as Estel Valerie, the bank manager at Wells Fargo. She’s the one who mainly communicates with Brian as he’s holding her and another bank employee hostage. She’s been through a bank robbery before, so she has some experience and is a little more calm and collected. She’s obviously scared and terrified. Beharie’s performance is great as a woman trying to stay calm and stay strong despite being so scared and terrified. She also walks a fine line of sympathizing with him, despite the fact that he’s threatening her.
Yet, Boyega’s performance is a sympathetic one. Yes, he’s threatening Estel but not really. Boyega’s Brian is so polite and well-mannered. He’s not so in a creepy way or in a way that’s meant to seem insidious or ominous. No, Brian’s politeness and manners are absolutely genuine. He lives and is doing all this in Georgia and it’s clear that his Southern charm and behavior are true to who he is. When he says he won’t hurt Estel or any other employee, the audience believes him, even if Estel and others are scared. Given what he asks for and given how he’s willing to talk, the film puts into question if his ultimate punishment truly fit his crime.
What’s truly incredible though is Boyega’s performance. Referencing Denzel Washington in John Q is appropriate because Boyega gives a Denzel Washington-level acting job here. There was another BLM film that came out recently called The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain (2021), which featured a tour-de-force performance from Frankie Faison who similarly played an African-American, former marine dealing with mental health issues. That film did amazing work of building up the paranoia and frustration that a lot of men like him experience. Boyega achieves that same thing here, as well as the heartbreak of a father not being able to provide or be there for his child. This is great work on his behalf. I was sold on Boyega, since first noticing him in Attack the Block (2011) and later in Imperial Dreams (2014), a film where he played again a single father struggling with homelessness, but I’m more sold on him with this.
PG-13 for strong language and some violent content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.