Review: ‘892,’ starring John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Michael Kenneth Williams, Connie Britton, Jeffrey Donovan, Selenis Leyva and Olivia Washington

January 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

John Boyega in “892” (Photo by Chris Witt)

[Editor’s Note: After this movie premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Bleecker Street acquired the movie and changed the movie’s title from “892” to “Breaking.”]

“892”

Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Marietta, Georgia, the dramatic film “892” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former Marine, who’s an Iraq War veteran, takes hostage of a bank in order to get the $892.42 that he says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs owes him.

Culture Audience: “892” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in suspenseful but formulaic movies with themes about how U.S. veterans are treated by the government, as well as racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

The suspenseful drama “892” leaves some major questions unanswered, but the message of this movie is loud and clear: “The U.S. government needs to improve how military veterans are treated by the system.” John Boyega gives a riveting performance in a movie that’s sometimes hampered by hostage movie clichés, underdeveloped characters and not enough empathy for the hostage victims. “892” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Based on true events, “892” is the second feature film directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, who co-wrote the “892” screenplay with Kwame Kwei-Armah. The screenplay is based on Aaron Gell’s 2018 Task & Purpose article “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him.” It’s a movie that takes some shortcuts in telling a story that puts more emphasis on showing the stress and intensity of a hostage situation instead of giving a well-rounded view of the people who were directly involved in this crisis.

The movie is told mostly from the perspective of a former U.S. Marines lance corporal who takes hostage of a Wells Fargo bank in Marietta, Georgia. This Iraq War veteran is angry and frustrated that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, also known as the VA, has withheld payment of $892.42 that he says he has a right to have. In real life, this hostage incident took place on July 17, 2017. And this distraught former military man was Brian Brown-Easley, a 33-year-old divorced father of an elementary-school-aged daughter.

Boyega portrays Brian Brown-Easley with a mixture of compassion, sorrow and ferocity in how this doomed military veteran expresses himself and interacts with the people around him. Most of the movie is told in “real time” during this bank standoff, but there are a few flashbacks that give some (but not enough) information on what led Brian to commit such a desperate act. The movie shifts perspectives mainly when it shows what’s happening outside of the bank during this standoff, as one person involved has somewhat of a breakthrough in emotionally connecting with Brian.

The beginning of the movie shows that Brian appears to be a devoted father to his daughter Kiah (played by London Covington), who’s about 6 or 7 years old. As they spend time together talking on the phone, they have a father-daughter joke about the “Lord of the Rings” villain creature Gollum and the character’s grotesque physical appearance. Brian is putting up a happy front for Kiah, but his life is really falling apart.

Brian is living in a motel, which is about to evict him for non-payment. It’s one of the reasons why Brian is so angry that he can’t get the $892.42 benefits payment that he says that the VA is wrongfully withholding from him. A flashback shown later in the movie reveals that this payment was denied to Brian because the VA was paying for Brian’s college tuition, but VA records show that he stopped attending the college, so the VA withheld payment to compensate for the college tuition. Brian insists it’s a case of mistaken identity.

About 10 minutes into the movie, Brian is shown holding the bank hostage, so viewers don’t get to know much about Brian in the beginning of the film. Brian walks into the bank while he’s carrying a backpack, and he calmly interacts with a bank teller to withdraw $25 from his bank account. He has a friendly bank teller named Rosa Diaz (played by Selenis Leyva), who is chatty and helpful. But after Brian gets his $25, he shows her a note that says, “I have a bomb.” And that’s when things take an ominous turn.

A quick-thinking bank manager named Estel Valerie (played by Nicole Beharie) notices that Rosa seems very anxious with Brian. Estel immediately figures out that some kind of robbery or threat is in progress, so she’s able to discreetly get most of the employees and all of the customers out of the bank. The bank isn’t that crowded, but it’s a bit of an “only in a movie” stretch that one person was able to do all of this so quickly without the hostage taker noticing that the bank is being evacuated.

The bank is evacuated to the point where Estel and Rosa are the only hostages during this standoff. There are repetitive scenes where Brian shouts to anyone who’ll listen some variation of this threat: “I’m going to kill myself and everybody in here if my demands are not met!”

He also insists on having Estel and Rosa call as many media outlets as possible because he wants his “mission” to get as much publicity as possible. “Fraud was committed! My disability check was stolen from me, and I want it back!” Brian shouts. Rosa and Estel both try to appease Brian by telling him that they can give him as much money as he wants from the cash in the bank. However, he adamantly refuses to accept any money that isn’t directly from the VA.

Meanwhile, just like Brian wanted, there ends up being live media coverage of the standoff, especially after Brian gets on the phone for a live conversation with WSB-TV producer Lisa Larson (played by Connie Britton), who tries to give Brian the impression that she’s on his side and wants him to safely get him what he’s demanding. Brian goes back and forth in deciding whether he can trust Lisa or not. Even though his hostage plan/bomb threat might be foolish, he’s smart enough to know that Lisa’s main agenda is to get as much out of this story as she can as a TV producer.

While all of this chaos is happening, there’s a section of the movie where the authorities and Brian have trouble reaching his ex-wife Cassandra Brown-Easley (played by Olivia Washington), who is fast-asleep (she works the night shift and is exhausted) and not answering her phone. When she does find out what’s happening, she seems curiously and inexplicably emotionally detached, which could be interpreted as shock. Viewers will get the impression that when Cassandra first hears that Brian is responsible for this hostage crisis, her attitude is, “Well, he’s my ex-husband, so he’s not my problem.”

However, Cassandra seems to already think the worst possible outcome will happen. Whenever law enforcement contacts her about Brian during this crisis, her first question is usually: “Is he dead?” This movie presents Cassandra as an ex-wife who doesn’t have much information to divulge about Brian and why he would commit these crimes.

Cassandra does have a very heavy emotional moment later when the reality of the situation sinks in, but for some parts of the movie, she doesn’t act like a mother who’s too concerned about how this crisis will affect her daughter. For example, she lets Kiah watch the TV news to see what’s happening with the standoff. You don’t have to be a parent to know that it would be very traumatic for a child to watch this type of news coverage that could end with the child seeing a parent killed or arrested on TV.

Brian seems to know even if he does get the money that he says is owed to him, getting arrested or killed are the only two realistic outcomes for him. He doesn’t seem all that concerned about having an escape plan, because he knows it would be pointless. And what about the two women who are being held hostage? Brian assures them: “If I die today, I die alone.”

The issue of race comes up occasionally during this hostage crisis—not as as an excuse or explanation, but to show that Brian is all too-aware that because he’s African American, he’s less likely to survive law enforcement’s reaction to what he’s doing. Shortly after Estel (who is African American) and Rosa (who is Afro-Latina) are taken hostage, Brian asks Estel if the bank has been robbed before. She says yes, and the robber was arrested. Brian says, “They didn’t kill him? He got to be white.”

Unlike most hostage takers, Brian insists on having a hostage negotiator. A small army of law enforcement is stationed outside and near the bank, including members of the Marietta Police Department, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. Some of them argue about who’s going to take the lead in the negotiations.

In the end, Eli Bernard (played by Michael Kenneth Williams), a sergeant with the Marietta PD, becomes the chief negotiator. Eli also happens to be an African American and a former Marine, just like Brian, so they bond over this shared identity. Eli often calls Brian “brother” and is the only one during the standoff who come closest to gaining Brian’s trust. (“892” is one of the last on-screen roles for Williams, who died of a drug overdose in 2021.)

The movie spends a lot of time trying to garner sympathy for Brian. And there’s no doubt that Boyega’s impactful performance is the main reason to watch “892.” However, all of this emphasis on Brian comes at the expense of sidelining the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters. Beharie shows some grit in her performance of Estel, who is more composed during this crisis than panic-stricken Rosa. However, Estel and Rosa are not shown as fully developed people. They’re just hostage victims who react to what Brian does and what he wants.

All the people outside of the bank are essentially the types of characters that have been in plenty of other hostage movies. Lisa is the ambitious and shrewd media person. Eli is the sympathetic “good cop.” And there’s the predictable “trigger happy” law enforcement officer Major Riddick (played by Jeffrey Donovan), who would rather have the hostage taker dead at the end of the ordeal instead of alive. The role of Major Riddick is quite generic and only in the movie so that Eli inevitably has someone to clash with over authority issues and negotiation tactics.

Even though the movie succeeds in keeping a suspenseful tone throughout, there are some inconsistencies in the storytelling. At one point in the movie, Brian is described as someone who’d never been in trouble with the law before, based on background checks that are done when he’s identified as the hostage taker. But then, there’s a flashback scene of Brian being handcuffed by police officers while he’s having a meltdown in a VA office because he can’t get his money.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest shortcoming is in how “892” avoids discussing mental health. Viewers won’t find out if Brian had a mental illness that was diagnosed or undiagnosed. And if he did have any mental illness, how long did he have it? Was he getting treatment for it? Those questions remain unanswered in the movie.

People can certainly speculate that as a war veteran, Brian might have had post-traumatic stress disorder. However, someone just doesn’t go into a bank and commit this type of horrifying act just because they want $892 from the government. Brian says he wants the media coverage to bring attention to the VA’s mistreatment of veterans, but it’s obviously illogical and wrong to try to get attention for this issue by holding innocent people hostage and threatening to blow up a building.

Details about Brian’s personal life are also not fully explained. Brian hints that he’s mainly responsible (or at least he blames himself) for his divorce from Cassandra, but the details over why they got divorced are never mentioned in the movie. Brian also says that he has an estranged brother, but his parents or other relatives aren’t even mentioned. Brian is obviously a loner, so he has no friends who can offer any insight. During this crisis, Cassandra is the only person in Brian’s family who is contacted.

All of this gives some skimpy background information that might explain why Brian felt he had no one that he could turn to for help. However, it doesn’t explain why Brian wasn’t thinking of his daughter when he committed an act that would result in Brian being taken away from her. It can be left up to interpretation that Brian subconsciously wanted a “suicide by cop” situation, but the movie doesn’t seem too interested in addressing mental health as a reason for why someone would do what Brian did. By leaving out these mental health issues, “892” could have come very close to portraying Brian as a negative and hollow stereotype of an “angry black man,” if not for Boyega’s nuanced performance.

“892” doesn’t frame Brian’s actions as a heroic “one man versus the system” story, but rather as a tragedy whose outcome probably would have been different if Brian had been white. There are moments in the movie where Brian seems to understand that his irreversible actions will cause a lot of emotional damage to his daughter Kiah. However, those moments are few and far in between, because the movie is mainly concerned about making Brian the person who should get the most sympathy in this tragedy. It’s debatable whether or not all of that sympathy is deserved.

Another shortcoming in “892” is how the movie has a trivial way of showing the traumas that Estel and Rosa have to deal with after the standoff is over. As a hostage thriller, “892” certainly delivers when it comes to creating tension-filled scenes. Some of the scenarios seem too contrived for a movie though, just for the sake of dragging out the story so that Brian can get more agitated and start yelling again. It’s the type of hostage film where the movie’s message is made very clear, but viewers still won’t know much about the hostage taker when the movie is over.

UPDATE: Bleecker Street will release “Breaking” (formerly titled “892”) on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘National Champions,’ starring Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Uzo Aduba, David Koechner, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristin Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant

December 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Stephan James, J.K. Simmons and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place during three days in New Orleans, the dramatic film “National Champions” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two football players for the fictional Missouri Wolves college team launch a boycott, right before a national championship game, in protest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) policy that NCAA student athletes are not entitled to salaries, disability pensions and health insurance for playing in NCAA games. 

Culture Audience: “National Champions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted movies about civil rights in athletics and in the workforce.

Uzo Aduba and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions” is a memorable sports movie where all the action and battles take place outside of the game. This tension-filled drama about a college student-athlete boycott features standout performances and a diverse look at various sides of the debate. How you feel about this movie will probably come down to how you answer these questions: Should student athletes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) get salaries, disability pensions and health insurance? And should NCAA student athletes form their own union?

Those questions are at the heart of the issues that are contentiously argued about in “National Champions,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Adam Mervis. Although the story is fictional, it takes a realistic-looking “what if” approach in depicting what would happen if NCAA football players decided to boycott playing in games, in order to get the NCAA to change its longstanding policies over these issues. And what if that boycott was staged just three days before a national championship game?

Those are the high-pressure circumstances under which the movie opens. “National Champions” does not let audiences go from its tightly wound grip during this entire movie, which is a suspense-filled ride from beginning to end. Even though this is a fictional story where the outcome can easily be predicted, the movie’s intention is to draw attention to the issues that are intensely debated in the movie. People who are not aware of these issues before seeing “National Champions” probably won’t look at NCAA sports in the same way again after seeing this movie.

At the beginning of “National Champions,” which takes place entirely in New Orleans, NCAA football player LeMarcus James (played by Stephan James) is seen at 6:10 a.m. on the balcony of his hotel room, as he gears up for the biggest fight of his life. He’s about to hold a press conference announcing the boycott and the list of demands that he and his fellow boycotters want to be fulfilled by the NCAA, in order to end the boycott. The national championship game is being held in New Orleans, and LeMarcus is expected to be a star of the game.

LeMarcus, who is 21, is the current quarterback for the fictional Missouri Wolves. He recently won the Heisman Trophy. And he is widely predicted to be the first overall pick of the next National Football League (NFL) draft. LeMarcus is well-aware that by launching ths boycott, it will likely ruin his chances to play in the NFL, since he will be branded as a “troublemaker.” However, he is determined to fight for what he strongly believes in, no matter that the consequences.

LeMarcus knows he’s facing an uphill battle in this boycott. At this point in time, LeMarcus and his best friend Emmett Sunday (played by Alexander Ludwig), who is also a Missouri Wolves teammate, are the only two athletes who are solidly committed to this boycott. They both come from working-class backgrounds and have gotten full athletic scholarships to attend their university because of football.

While in New Orleans for the natonial championship game, LeMarcus and Emmett have planned to “go missing” from practice. They move around from hotel to hotel, so that they can’t easily be found. During the course of the movie, they only allow a select number of trusted people into their hotel room. LeMarcus is also battling a nasty cold, but it doesn’t deter his inner strength to fight for his cause. LeMarcus and Emmett are starting this boycott without any help from attorneys.

Emmett, who is the more laid-back of the two friends, doesn’t seem to like public speaking because he’s not seen in the movie making speeches or doing press conferences. Emmett is happy to let LeMarcus take the lead as the spokesperson for the boycott and as the one who articulates the demands that they want the NCAA to follow. Throughout the movie, Stephan James gives an effective performance that shows how LeMarcus has a powerful talent of persuasion and a steely determination to not give up in the face of several obstacles. LeMarcus’ stubbornness and refusal to compromise make him a formidable but very underdog opponent.

LeMarcus has his share of skeptics and naysayers. Before the press conference, a teammate named Orlando Bishop (played by Julian Horton) tries to discourage LeMarcus from going through with the boycott. Orlando tells LeMarcus that the NCAA system won’t change just because LeMarcus doesn’t play in the national championships. “Aint nobody marching in the streets for the number-one anchor. You’re going to embarrass yourself, bro,” Orlando comments. When the boycott is underway, someone else warns LeMarcus that LeMarcus is going to be blacklisted from professional football, just like former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who is outspoken in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the brief televised press conference, LeMarcus gives the list of demands that the boycotters want from the NCAA:

  • (1) NCAA will create of a non-revokable trust fund for every Division 1 varsity athlete.
  • (2) NCAA will contribute to a disability penision for Division 1 athletes who are injured in college athletics
  • (3) NCAA will recognize and collectively bargain with the proposed NCAA players’ union, submitting to all federally mandated guidelines of a unionized workforce.

LeMarcus doesn’t sugarcoat what he thinks is going on with the NCAA having a policy forbidding NCAA athletes from being paid athletes: He calls it “slave labor,” where the athletes work for free and other people get rich off of them. “Slave labor” is a hot-button phrase, because it can’t be ignored that most of the NCAA football players are African American, while most of the NCAA officials who are millionaires because of their NCAA salaries are white.

The NCAA doesn’t pay NCAA athletes because of a policy that refuses to classify NCAA athletes as NCAA employees. The NCAA makes a bulk of its profits from licensing its games to television, as well as from collecting money from sponsors that pay the NCAA and individual teams for NCAA athletes to wear sponsor items or use sponsor equipment for free advertising. People who don’t want the NCAA to pay its athletes say it’s because NCAA athletes are college students, not working professionals, and if these athletes got paid, they’d be more likely to be corrupted and drop out of college to spend the money.

During the press conference, LeMarcus gives a damning example of the disparity between how the athletes are not compensated for their work and how the NCAA officials are being highly compensated. He mentions how the unpaid NCAA athletes have to pay for their own medical bills if they are injured during games, while high-ranking NCAA officials each get millions of dollars in salaries and employee perks, such as health insurance benefits, life insurance benefits and lucrative pensions. The billions of dollars that flow through the NCAA, after expenses are paid, end up mostly with an elite group at the top.

To make his point, LeMarcus names the multimillion-dollar annual salaries of some high-ranking NCAA officials, including the salary of Missouri Wolves head coach James Lazor, who is not happy about having his salary being revealed for the whole world to know. By contrast, many NCAA athletes spend so much required time on their sport (which is usually more than a regular 40-hour work week) in additon to their academic requirements, they don’t have time to get salaried jobs, and many of them are financially struggling. NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept high-priced gifts and donations. However, in July 2021 (after “National Champions” was filmed), the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a monetary limit that the NCAA wanted to keep on student-athletes getting education-related gifts and benefits.

The fact that many NCAA athletes get their college tuition and living expenses paid for through scholarships (which usually comes from the athlete student’s college/university, not the NCAA) is of little comfort if it comes at a price of being injured from NCAA games or NCAA training, and the NCAA won’t help with health insurance or medical bills for the injuries. And if athletes in the NCAA have career-ending injuries, or if the athletes don’t make it to the professional leagues, then they are often stuck with paying for medical bills for injuries that they got while playing for the NCAA.

By the time athletes make it into the NCAA, they’re already at least 18 years old, in most cases. And because almost all NCAA athletes are legal adults and working full-time hours for the NCAA, many people believe that NCAA should be compensated like full-time employees. However, too many people are invested in keeping the status quo because they don’t want to share the NCAA’s wealth with the athletes.

These are harsh realities that many people don’t want to think about when they root for their favorite American college teams and athletes. However, as depicted in “National Champions,” people who believe in a boycott of the NCAA until things change in favor of athletes’ civil rights think that the only ways that these changes happen are if the public puts pressure on the NCAA and if activists play hardball with the NCAA. LeMarcus knows that he will probably ruin his promising football career with this boycott, and changes might not come in his lifetime, but he wants to get the ball rolling.

At first glance, it might seem that the plan to launch this boycott is poorly conceived, since only LeMarcus and Emmett seem to the only athletes who are part of the boycott. But the plan, although very risky, is actually a bold strategic move. And that’s because LeMarcus and Emmett plan to use the media to get the word out quickly to a massive audience and gain as much public support as possible.

If LeMarcus and Emmett had secretly tried to recruit other athletes for weeks behind the scenes, the word would’ve gotten out to the people who would want to stop the boycott. By staging the boycott right before the national championship game (the most lucrative football game for the NCAA), it would catch the NCAA off guard and force them to make a decision, or else possibly have the game cancelled. And because of the media attention, the NCAA has to make its decision publicly. LeMarcus and Emmett are fully prepared not to play in the game, but what other NCAA football players will join them?

The media blitz part of the plan works, because the boycott becomes big news. And there are some star NFL athletes who voice their support of the boycott, including Russell Wilson and Malcolm Jenkins, who portray themselves in cameos in the movie. These celebrity endorsements convince some other NCAA national championship football players to join the boycott too. The movie has a scene where LeMarcus gives a passionate speech in a hotel room that further convinces some of his fellow NCAA football players to join the boycott.

It isn’t long before so many Wolves team members are boycotting the game, the team is in danger of having mostly inexperienced freshman left as available team members. An emergency meeting takes place with the key players who will put up the fight in trying to squash the boycott. The people in this meeting are:

  • Coach James Lazor (played by J.K. Simmons), the hard-driving leader of the Missouri Wolves, who sees his athletes as his surrogate sons.
  • Richard Everly (played by David Koechner), the arrogant, sexist and crude leader of the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC).
  • Wes Martin (played by Tony Winters), a Big 12 Conference executive who has some sympathy for the boycotting athletes.
  • Kevin McDonald (played by David Maldonado), director of communications for College Football Playoff (CFP), who is loyal to his employer and has to run interference with the media.
  • Mike Titus (played by Jeffrey Donovan), senior vice-president of championships for Division 1 NCAA Football, who is calm and level-headed.
  • Katherine Poe (played by Uzo Aduba), who describes herself as “outside counsel,” and seems to have a specialty in crisis management.

In this initial meeting, the men do almost all of the talking, while Katherine mostly sits quietly and listens in the background. But as time goes on, Katherine proves to be a fierce competitor in this boycott war. And she’s willing to do what it takes to win, including digging up some of LeMarcus’ secrets that could hurt his credibility. Coach Lazor wants the boycott to end, but he’s reluctant to play dirty in ways that could ruin LeMarcus’ life and reputation.

In a cast of very talented actors, Aduba and Simmons give outstanding performances not only because their characters are so strong-willed and outspoken but also because Coach Lazor and Katherine have their own unique charisma and flaws. Aduba and Simmons give two of the best monologues in the movie. The screenwriting for “National Champions” is mostly solid, and these cast members definitely elevate the material.

Coach Lazor’s big moment comes when he assembles the remaining Wolves team members in a hotel conference room and gives a rousing and emotional speech about how money doesn’t make someone happy and that he’s not a coach for the NCAA because of the money. He shares a story about his personal background and how his dreams to become professional football player were dashed, but he found a way to channel his passion for football by coaching. Coach Lazor says that money shouldn’t be these athletes’ motivation, but glory should be the main motivation.

Katherine’s impactful monlogue comes in a scene when Emmett accuses her of being heartless. It’s in this scene where Katherine, who comes across as obsessed with her job and somewhat mysterious up until this point, unleashes a tirade to show her human vulnerabilities and emotional pain. She also reveals that she’s not siding with the NCAA because it’s her job, but also because she truly believes that the boycott will hurt NCAA funding for lower-profile sports that don’t get as much attention as football and men’s basketball.

Katherine is probably the most interesting and complex character in this movie. There are many sports movies that show clashes between athletes and authority figures. However, almost all of these movies are about ego conflicts between men. Katherine embodies every woman who’s in a male-dominated job who is constantly underestimated because of her gender. She also happens to be African American, which is adds another layer of discrimination that she no doubt has experienced for her entire life.

It’s this type of life experience that makes her more clear-eyed and prepared for the times when people’s worst natures come out, compared to people who are unprepared and gullible because they go through life never having to experience real discrimination or hatred. Katherine’s way of dealing with opposition can be too extreme, by a lot of standards. She wants to win at all costs, even if she gives up a lot of compassion or empathy that she might have.

“National Champions” is at its best when it focuses on the characters of LeMarcus, Coach Lazor and Katherine. The movie tends to falter when it goes off on other tangents. There’s a soap opera-like subplot about Coach Lazor’s philandering wife Bailey Lazor (played by Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover Elliott Schmidt (played by Timothy Olyphant), a college professor who decides that he’s going to take a job in Italy. The movie shows if Bailey decides to run off with Elliott or not, in the midst of this boycott crisis.

Meanwhile, some supporting characters are introduced in the movie, but their character development is non-existent. Lil Rel Howery portrays Ronnie Dunn, the Wolves’ defensive coordinator coach, who might have to step in for Coach Lazor during the championship game when Coach Lazor seems to be on the verge of having a personal meltdown. Tim Blake Nelson is Rodger Cummings, the head of the Missouri Wolves boosters club, who is not about to let all the booster donations that were poured into the team possibly go down the drain with a boycott that could cost the Wolves the championship game. Andrew Bachelor portrays Taylor Jackson, another wealthy booster of the Wolves.

All the other football players depicted in the movie aren’t given enough screen time for viewers to see if they have distinctive personalities. Cecil Burgess (played by Therry Edouard), who has the nickname the Haitian Hammer, is another star athlete for the Missouri Wolves. However, Cecil only has a few brief scenes, mainly to show that he’s staying loyal to the NCAA, and he thinks the boycott is a mistake. Emmett is portrayed as a nice guy, but his personality is fairly bland.

Despite some of the flaws in the “National Champions” screenplay, the movie is directed, filmed and edited in a way that makes this an engaging thriller for people who want to watch movies about the business side of sports. “National Champions” might disappoint people who think they’re going to see a lot of football playing in the movie. But for other people who appreciate what the film is actually about, they’ll understand that it’s about real-life stakes that are much higher than a championship game.

STX will release “National Champions” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 28, 2021.

Review: ‘Wrath of Man,’ starring Jason Statham

May 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Holt McCallany, Jason Statham, Josh Hartnett and Rocci Williams in “Wrath of Man” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Wrath of Man”

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the action flick “Wrath of Man” features a nearly all-male, predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class, law enforcement and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A crime boss goes undercover as an armored truck driver to avenge the murder of his teenage son, who was killed during a heist of an armored truck.

Culture Audience: “Wrath of Man” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a predictable and violent movie with no imagination.

Raúl Castillo, Deobia Oparei, Jeffrey Donovan, Chris Reilly, Laz Alonso and Scott Eastwood in “Wrath of Man” (Photo by Christopher Raphael/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

The fourth time isn’t the charm for director Guy Ritchie and actor Jason Statham in the vapid action flick “Wrath of Man,” their fourth movie together. It’s tedious and predictable junk filled with cringeworthy dialogue and stunts with no creativity. People who are familiar with Statham’s work already know that his movies are almost always schlockfests that are essentially about violence and car chases. However, Ritchie’s filmography is much more of a mixed bag. “Wrath of Man” isn’t Ritchie’s absolute worst film, but it’s a movie that could have been so much better.

Ritchie co-wrote the “Wrath of Man” screenplay with Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson. The movie is based on the 2004 French thriller “Le Convoyeur,” directed by Nicolas Boukhrief and written by Boukhrief and Éric Besnard. Ritchie and Statham previously worked together on 1998’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (Ritchie’s feature-film debut), 2000’s “Snatch” and 2005’s “Revolver.” Whereas those three movies had plenty of sly comedy with brutal action, “Wrath of Man” is so by-the-numbers and soulless, it seems like a computer program, not human beings, could’ve written this movie.

The movie’s simplistic plot could’ve been told in 90 minutes or less. Instead, it’s stretched out into a nearly two-hour slog with repetitive and unnecessary flashbacks. In “Wrath of Man,” which takes place in Los Angeles, Statham plays a mysterious crime boss who’s out to avenge the murder of his son Dougie (played by Eli Brown), who was about 17 or 18 and an innocent bystander when he was shot to death by a robber during a heist of an armored truck.

Dougie’s murder (which is not spoiler information) is shown in a flashback about halfway through the movie. Until then, viewers are left to wonder who Statham’s character really is when he shows up at the headquarters of Fortico Security to apply for a job working as a guard in an armored truck. When he applies for the job, he identifies himself has Patrick Hill, a divorcé with more than 25 years of security experience. Later, viewers find out that it’s an alias; his real last name is Mason.

But he was able to create an entire false identity as Patrick Hill, with documents provided by his trusty assistant Kirsty (played by Lyne Renée), one of the few women with a speaking role in this movie. The false identity includes phony job references and a fake job stint at the now-defunct Orange Delta Security, which was a well-known company. Based on this elaborate scheme, Patrick is easily able to get a job at Fortico.

Fortico is described in the movie as one of the top armored vehicle companies that does cash pickups and deliveries in the area. The company’s clients include retail department stores, marijuana dispensaries, cash vaults, casinos and private banks. On a typical pickup or delivery, there are two or three employees in the truck: a driver, a guard and/or a messenger. The company isn’t huge (it only has 12 trucks), but it’s very profitable. A Fortico truck haul can total around $15 million a day, sometimes more.

Patrick is trained by Hayden Blair (played by Holt McCallany), who goes by the nickname Bullet. Almost everyone Bullet works with directly seems to have a nickname, so he immediately gives Patrick the nickname H, an abbreviation of Hill. Patrick/H goes through the training process (including gun defense skills) and he barely gets passing grades. He’s assigned to work with a cocky driver named David Hancock (played by Josh Hartnett), whose nickname is Boy Sweat Dave. Another colleague is Robert Martin (played by Rocci Williams), whose nickname is Hollow Bob.

When Bullet introduces H to these two co-workers, Bullet says, “He’s H, like the bomb. Or Jesus H.” The bad dialogue doesn’t get any better. H is told that he’s replacing a co-worker named Sticky John (who came up with these cringeworthy nicknames?), who died during a heist that killed multiple employees. The robbers got away, so the Fortico employees on are on edge about this shooting spree, which they call the Gonzo Murders. Boy Sweat Dave says, “We ain’t the predators. We’re the prey.”

The insipid dialogue continues throughout the entire movie. In a scene with some Fortico workers off-duty in a bar, Boy Sweat Dave is playing pool with Dana Curtis (played by Niamh Algar), the token female on Fortico’s armored truck crew. Dana says sarcastically to Boy Sweat Dave: “The point of the game is to get the ball in the hole.” Boy Sweat Dave snaps back, “The point of a woman is to shut the fuck up, Dana.”

Dana replies, “Well, that Ivy League education is really working for you, Boy Sweat.” (How can you say a line like that with a straight face?) Boy Sweat Dave retorts, “Pretty soon, you’ll all be working for me. The power is in this big head here.” Dana snipes back, “Well, it’s definitely not in your little head. Or are you still blaming the beer?”

The character of Boy Sweat Dave is an example of how “Wrath of Man” wastes a potentially interesting character on silly dialogue. What kind of person with an Ivy League education wants to work as an armored truck driver, a job which doesn’t even require a high school education? Viewers never find out because Boy Sweat Dave is one of several characters in the movie who are shallowly introduced, just so there can be more people in the body count later.

And because Dana is H’s only female co-worker, this movie that treats women as tokens can’t let her be just a co-worker. No, she has to serve the purpose of fulfilling H’s sexual needs too, since he and Dana have a predictable fling/one night stand. He finds out something about her when he spends the night at her place that helps him unravel the mystery of who killed his son.

It isn’t long before Patrick/H experiences his first heist as a Fortico employee. He’s partnered with Boy Sweat Dave, who’s driving, while H is the lookout. The heist is unrealistically staged in the movie as one of those battles where one man (in this case, H) can take down several other men in a shootout where a Fortico employee has been taken hostage by the thieves. Post Malone fans (or haters) might get a kick out of the scene though, since he plays one of the nameless robbers who doesn’t last long in this movie. H has saved his co-workers’ lives in this botched heist, so he’s hailed as a hero by the company.

Meanwhile, the FBI has been looking for Patrick because he’s been an elusive crime boss. There are three FBI agents, all very uninteresting, who are on this manhunt: Agent Hubbard (played by Josh Cowdery), Agent Okey (played by Jason Wong) and their supervisor Agent King (played by Andy Garcia). Hubbard and Okey come in contact with Patrick/H, when they investigate the botched robbery where Patrick/H ended up as the hero.

Agent King orders Hibbard and Okey not to let on that they know H’s real identity and to keep tabs on why this crime boss is working at an armored truck company. Eddie Marsan, a very talented actor, has a very useless role in “Wrath of Man,” as an office assistant named Terry. Terry becomes suspicious of who H really is, because in his heroic rescue, H showed the type of expert combat skills that contradicts the mediocrity that he displayed in the company’s training.

And just who’s in this group of murderous thieves? They’re led by mastermind Jackson (played by Jeffrey Donovan), a married man with two kids who lives a double life. This seemingly mild-mannered family man works in a shopping mall. But he also apparently has time to lead a group of armored truck thieves, who pose as street construction workers when they commit their robberies. The robbers use a concrete mixer truck to block the armored truck and then ambush the people inside the armored truck.

What’s really dumb about “Wrath of Man” is that these armed robbers use the same tactic every time. In real life, repeating this very cumbersome way of committing an armed robbery would make them easier to catch, not harder. Apparently, these dimwits think that the best way to not call attention to yourself during a robbery is to haul out a giant concrete mixer truck.

Jackson’s crew consists of a bunch of mostly generic meatheads: Brad (played by Deobia Oparei), Sam (played by Raúl Castillo), Tom (played by Chris Reilly) and Carlos (played by Laz Alonzo), with Jan (played by Scott Eastwood) as the loose cannon in the group. Guess who pulled the trigger on Patrick/H/Mason’s son Dougie? Guess who’s going to have a big showdown at the end of the movie?

Of course, a crime boss has to have his own set of goons. Patrick/H/Mason has three thugs who are closest to him and who do a lot of his dirty work: Mike (played by Darrell D’Silva), Brendan (played by Cameron Jack) and Moggy (played by Babs Olusanmokun). There’s a vile part of the movie that shows Patrick/H/Mason ordering his henchman to beat up and torture anyone who might have information on who murdered Dougie. The operative word here is “might,” because some people who had nothing to do with the murder are brutally assaulted.

Mike has a conscience and he says that he won’t commit these vicious attacks anymore to try to find Dougie’s killer. Mike advises Patrick/H/Mason to think of another way to find the murderer. And that’s when Patrick/H/Mason got the idea to go “undercover” at Fortico, with the hope that he could catch the murderous thieves in their next heist on a Fortico truck.

And what do you know, this gang of thieves will be doing “one last heist” on a Fortico truck, to get a haul that’s said to be at least $150 million. What could possibly go wrong? You know, of course.

Ritchie’s previous film “The Gentlemen” (which was also about gangsters and theives) had a lot of devilishly clever dialogue and crackled with the type of robust energy that hasn’t been seen in his movies in years. And although “The Gentlemen” wasn’t a perfect film about criminal antics, it at least made the effort to have memorable characters and to keep viewers guessing about which character was going to come out on top. “Wrath of Man” is a completely lazy film that has no interesting characters, no suspense, and not even any eye-popping stunts. It’s just a silly shoot ’em up flick that’s as empty as Statham’s dead-eyed stares.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Pictures and Miramax Films will release “Wrath of Man” in U.S. cinemas on May 7, 2021.

Review: ‘Let Him Go,’ starring Diane Lane and Kevin Costner

November 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner in “Let Him Go” (Photo by Kimberley French/Focus Features)

“Let Him Go”

Directed by Thomas Bezucha

Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana and North Dakota in the early 1960s, the dramatic thriller “Let Him Go” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A retired sheriff and his wife in Montana travel to North Dakota to rescue their grandson and their former daughter-in-law from an abusive and violent family.

Culture Audience: “Let Him Go” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted, well-written dramas where family issues intersect with crime.

Lesley Manville in “Let Him Go” (Photo by Kimberly French/Focus Features)

Movies about child-custody issues usually focus on the parents of the child, but “Let Him Go” is a well-made, taut thriller whose protagonists are grandparents who want to rescue their grandson from an abusive home and raise him in their own loving and safe home. Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, “Let Him Go” is adapted from Larry Watson’s novel of the same name. It’s a very good cinematic interpretation of the book, because the movie adeptly shows the contrasts of the wide open landscapes with the almost-suffocating anxiety that the grandparents experience as their quest to rescue their grandson becomes increasingly dangerous.

The story takes place in the early 1960s, before mobile phones, email and the Internet would make it easier for the couple at the center of the story to track down the violent clan members who have control of the child. It was also in a time and place (the rural Midwest) when custody battles weren’t very likely to go to court by people who didn’t have the money for legal fees and who preferred to take the law into their own hands. The beginning of “Let Him Go” shows what life was like for the grandparents before this family feud turned their life upside down.

George Blackledge (played by Kevin Costner), who’s a retired sheriff, and his wife Margaret Blackledge (played by Diane Lane) are living a tranquil life on their rural Montana ranch. Also living in their home are George and Margaret’s 27-year-old son James (played by Ryan Bruce), who is their only child; James’ wife Lorna (played by Kayli Carter); and James and Lorna’s infant son James Jr., also known as Jimmy.

George and Margaret have been married about the same amount time (30 years) that George was in law enforcement. Even though George is retired and probably has a pension, the family has an additional household income because Margaret and James have a business where they break/train horses. Lorna is a homemaker, but there’s tension between her and Margaret, because Margaret tends to do things (such as take care of the baby) in the way that Margaret thinks is best.

One day, Margaret and George notice that James has not come back from a horse ride that wasn’t supposed to take very long. George goes out looking for James, and he tragically finds James lying dead on a creek embankment with the horse nearby. James has a broken neck, apparently because he was thrown off by the horse.

The movie then fast-forwards three years later. George, Margaret and Jimmy are the only witnesses to a small wedding ceremony between Lorna and a local man named Donnie Weboy (played by Will Brittain), whose last name is pronounced “wee-boy.” The Weboy surname can be interpreted as an interesting play on words, since Donnie and his three siblings are brothers who live in the shadow of their domineering mother.

It’s never explained in the movie how Donnie and Lorna got to know each other, nor is it mentioned what Donnie does for a living. At the wedding ceremony, Donnie’s personality is indiscernible, and his family is not mentioned until George and Margaret have an urgent reason to find Donnie’s relatives. Even though George and Margaret don’t seem to know much about Donnie’s side of the family, George and Margaret attending this wedding ceremony is a sign that they approve of Lorna and Donnie’s marriage on some level.

After Donnie and Lorna get married, Lorna and Jimmy move out of their comfortable home on the spacious ranch and into a small apartment with Donnie in the closest big city. It’s a move that hits Margaret especially hard emotionally, because she has raised Jimmy as if he were her own son, and she won’t be able to see Jimmy as often as she would like. Margaret and George don’t live close to the city, but they live close enough that they can take a trip by car to visit.

One day, Margaret has driven to Donnie and Lorna’s apartment for a surprise visit. Before she can get to the apartment, Margaret sees Donnie, Lorna and Jimmy walking down a nearby street. She’s shocked and dismayed to see Donnie angrily hit Jimmy in the face and then do the same thing to Lorna. Donnie also grabs Lorna and Jimmy in a forceful and abusive way.

Margaret is so upset that she drives away. When she gets home, she tells George what she saw, but they do nothing but worry about how Jimmy (played by twins Bram Hornung and Otto Hornung) is being raised. It’s a sign of the times, when domestic abuse was a lot less likely to be reported than it is now. Margaret and George also didn’t report the abuse because it’s possible that Lorna and Jimmy would deny the abuse happened, out of fear, and then it would be Margaret’s word against Donnie’s.

After witnessing the abuse, Margaret goes back to the apartment on another day. And she’s in for another shock. A neighbor tells Margaret that Donnie, Lorna and Jimmy abruptly moved away to stay with Donnie’s family in North Dakota. It’s at that point that Margaret makes up her mind to not only track them down but also to get Jimmy and possibly Lorna to move back in with Margaret and George.

At first, George is reluctant to interfere, and he expresses concern that he and Margaret are too old to raise Jimmy. But when George sees that nothing will stop Margaret from this mission, he goes along with her because he thinks that she will need protection. And so, George and Margaret go on a road trip to find Jimmy and rescue him from what they’re sure is an abusive household. “Let Him Go” has several impressive panoramic scenes of the open roads and land during this journey.

The first order of business is to find out where the Weboy family lives in North Dakota. George gets help from his connections in law enforcement. Through this investigation, George and Margaret discover that the Weboy clan is a family of troublemakers with a history of illegal violence. Early on in the trip, George got upset when he found out that Margaret brought a loaded gun. But later on, that gun might come in handy.

During their travels on the open road, George and Margaret meet a young Native American man named Peter Dragswolf (played by Booboo Stewart), who’s in his late teens or early 20s, and has been living on his own for the past three years due to some problems in his family. Peter has a stallion as his only companion. Margaret and Peter bond over their love of horses, and it brings back bittersweet memories of Margaret and George’s son James.

George and Margaret eventually continue on their journey and part ways with Peter. But is this the last time that Peter will be in the story? Of course not.

During many parts of this movie, George and Margaret, who both have very stoic and strong-willed personalities, share silent moments that are neither awkward nor out-of-place. George and Margaret are people who are used to living simple, uncomplicated lives. And their longtime marriage has given them a comfort level where they don’t need to be chattering nonstop to be in tune with each other.

It isn’t long before George and Margaret track down the Weboy relative who will introduce them to the rest of the clan: Billy Weboy (played by Jeffrey Donovan) is one of Donnie’s older brothers. When Billy first meets George and Margaret, Billy comes across as smarmy and deceptive and as someone who likes to play mind games. George and Margaret tell Billy who they are, but don’t tell him about their plans to take Jimmy away. The grandparents just pretend that they only want to visit Jimmy and Lorna.

George is immediately suspicious of Billy and doesn’t try to hide his wariness. Margaret has a different approach because she figures that if she’s nice to Billy, he is more likely to cooperate with them. Margaret’s tactic works. Billy takes them to the Weboy family home, where George and Margaret have a very brief and uncomfortable reunion with Jimmy and Lorna, who appear to be very afraid of living in the Weboy home.

Why was this meeting so awkward? Because the Weboy family’s widowed matriarch Blanche (played by Lesley Manville, in full villainous mode) insists that they stay for dinner, but she sternly orders Jimmy to go to bed because he didn’t finish eating something. Blanche makes it very clear to George and Margaret that she expects all of her sons (and any of her son’s children) to live in her home and abide by her overbearing rules.

Blanche also reveals that she holds a grudge because she and the rest of the Weboys weren’t invited to Donnie’s wedding. Even when George and Margaret explain that Donnie never mentioned his family, and they didn’t know about the Weboy family until recently, Blanche still acts resentful toward George and Margaret. This menacing grandmother also suspects the real reason why George and Margaret have come to town.

Blanche is one of these villains who tries to mask her wickedness with smiles, but her hateful personality can still be seen underneath the fake politeness. Her late husband Henry is briefly mentioned in the movie, but not much else is said about Henry except that he’s dead. In addition to Billy and Donnie, Blanche’s other children are Elton (played by Connor Mackay) and Marvin (played by Adam Stafford).

Donnie is the youngest brother, and he’s the only brother who seems to be married with a child. Donnie definitely acts like a control freak with Lorna and Jimmy, but the one person who has control over Donnie is Blanche. Considering the very restrictive lifestyle imposed on Lorna, it might be a little surprising to some viewers that Donnie has let Lorna take a job outside of the home (she works as a sales clerk/cashier in a clothing store), but that might be out of necessity since it’s never made clear what Donnie does for a living, if he works at all.

Movies about adults fighting over custody of a child tend to be argumentative and at times overly melodramatic. “Let Him Go” avoids the usual stereotypes of making this family feud play out in the court system or in public shaming. Instead, the grandparents want to keep this battle as private as possible. The issue of domestic violence is handled in a way that it’s expected to be handled in a story that takes place in an era when survivors of domestic violence didn’t have shelters and assistance programs to the extent that these resources exist now.

There are moments of rage and gripping suspense in “Let Him Go,” but that emotional turn in the movie doesn’t really come later until Margaret and George come to the conclusion that the Weboys are irredeemably abusive and evil. Writer/director Bezucha skillfully brings a “slow burn” quality to this film that leads up to a gripping showdown by the end of the movie.

A lot of the beauty of “Let Him Go” is in how Lane and Costner express the internal resolve of these very determined grandparents. Manville has a fairly predictable villainous character in Blanche, but Manville portrays Blanche as someone who truly believes that what she’s doing is what’s best for her family. What most people would see as abusive, Blanche would describe as “tough love.”

Carter’s portrayal of Lorna character isn’t always the domestic-abuse stereotype of being constantly fearful and meek. She has moments of wanting to assert her individual identity, but she’s usually shut down by an older person (usually Blanche or Margaret), who tells her what she should do instead of asking her what she thinks. Lorna’s background as an orphan is mentioned, and it gives viewers some context over why she doesn’t have any biological relatives who can help her. Later in the story, Lorna and Margaret have an emotionally touching scene where they come to terms with their tension-filled relationship. It’s one of the highlights of the film.

“Let Him Go” has moments that might be a little too quiet or slow-paced for people who expect thrillers to have a lot of non-stop action. But just like Margaret and George in the movie, “Let Him Go” has a steady and deliberate pace that people should not mistake for weakness. Underneath is the type of grit and courage that won’t back down from a fight.

Focus Features released “Let Him Go” in U.S. cinemas on November 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Honest Thief,’ starring Liam Neeson

October 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kate Walsh and Liam Neeson in “Honest Thief” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films)

“Honest Thief”

Directed by Mark Williams

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Boston area, the action-crime thriller “Honest Thief” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A notorious bank robber battles with FBI agents when he decides to turn himself into authorities.

Culture Audience: “Honest Thief” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching predictable thrillers that have a lot of credibility issues.

Anthony Ramos and Jai Courtney in “Honest Thief” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films) 

If there’s an action drama with Liam Nesson as the star, then you can bet that his character in the movie is out for revenge. The problem is that Neeson has made so many of these types of “revenge movies” that they all blend together after a while, except for the “Taken” franchise which is its own separate beast. Therefore, it’s understandable if viewers really can’t tell one Neeson pulpy thriller from the next one. At least with “Honest Thief,” the title is a reminder of what type of character Neeson portrays in the movie. The film’s title might be distinctive, but the movie’s mediocre plot and action definitely are as generic and unimaginative as they can be.

In “Honest Thief” (directed by Mark Williams), Neeson plays Tom Dolan, also known as Tom Carter, a notorious bank robber whose modus operandi is to set off explosives to open a safe in a bank while the bank is closed for business. (Tom lives in the Boston area, and Neeson keeps his native Irish accent for this role.) Tom always chooses banks with older safes (which are easier to open) and which are located next to vacant buildings, so the explosives won’t affect a building next door that has an active business.

Tom has robbed 12 banks in seven states over the past eight years. His total robbery haul is about $9 million, and he’s been successfully able to elude capture for all of these years. Law enforcement has no idea who the bank robber is, and the bank robber is nicknamed the In and Out Bandit by the media, because of how quickly and efficiently he commits the crimes.

But Tom’s life is about to change when he meets Annie Wilkins (played by Kate Walsh), who works as a clerk at a place that rents storage units. Tom goes there to rent a medium-sized unit, which viewers can immediately tell is where he’s going to hide money that he stole from the bank robberies. Tom and Annie flirt a little during this transaction, which indicates that Annie might just become more than a passing encounter.

The movie then fast forwards to one year later. Annie and Tom are now a couple, and they are looking at a big house that Tom is going to purchase in Newton, Massachusetts. Tom then surprises Annie by asking her to move in with him. She’s hesitant because she’s still recovering from a traumatic divorce and is very reluctant to take her relationship with Tom to the level of “live-in partner.”

Annie hasn’t lived with anyone since her divorce. As she tells Tom, “I just don’t want to go through that again.” Tom tells her, “You won’t have to.” And because Annie really likes the house and seems to really love Tom, she then changes her mind and says yes. Annie is studying psychology to become a therapist, which is a skill she’s going to need when she has to deal with all the crazy things that happen to her in this movie.

But what about Tom’s secret life as a bank robber? He’s about to come clean and face the consequences. While staying at the Charleston Hotel, Tom calls the FBI’s Boston office and confesses that he’s the bank robber called the In and Out Bandit. He also mentions that he hates that nickname because he thinks it’s tacky, as if that’s something he should be concerned about in the moment that he confesses to his serious crimes.

The FBI agent who talks to Tom on the phone is Agent Sam Baker (played by Robert Patrick), who listens to Tom’s confession with a great deal of skepticism. Tom tells Baker that he will turn himself in and give back all the money that he stole, on the conditions that he serve a reduced sentence with a maximum of two years, and it must be at a minimum-security prison that’s near Boston.

Baker almost laughs when he tells Tom that the law doesn’t work that way, but Tom stands firm on his demands. When Baker asks Tom why he’s confessing, Tom says it’s because he met a special woman, he can no longer live with the guilt of his big secret, and he wants to start a new life with her after he serves his prison time. Tom hasn’t robbed any banks since he fell in love with Annie.

Tom tells Baker that he’s at the Charleston Hotel in Room 216. Baker then tells Tom that he will look into Tom’s claims, but Baker comments that the FBI has gotten a lot of false confessions from people claiming to be the In and Out Bandit. Tom insists that he’s telling the truth about being the real In and Out Bandit. (And he is.)

While Baker is taking this call, he’s sitting across from his colleague Agent Myers (played by Jeffrey Donavan), who’s even more hard-nosed and more cynical than Baker. Both men have a lot of respect for each other though. Myers considers Baker to be his mentor and closest friend in the FBI.

There’s a minor running joke in the movie that Myers often has his small white-and-brown dog named Tazzie with him. It’s a dog that he doesn’t really want, but he got the dog in a bitter divorce from his ex-wife, who got to keep their former marital home. And, out of spite, he doesn’t want to give the dog back to his ex-wife. Myers doesn’t mistreat the dog, but Tazzie is often seen tagging along with Myers in places that you wouldn’t expect to see a small dog during an intense FBI operation.

The dog’s presence is one of the few semi-humorous things in “Honest Thief,” which takes itself way too seriously for being such a formulaic and substandard movie. (“Honest Thief” director Williams co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Steve Allrich.) There’s plenty of action, but much of it has so many unrealistic consequences, that anyone watching this movie will have to drop any expectations that “Honest Thief” is nothing more than a cheap retread of Neeson’s other “anti-hero” rampage movies, where he gets angry at certain people and won’t stop until they’re all injured or killed.

Agent Baker thinks that Tom is just another crackpot giving a false confession, so he hands off the report to two subordinate FBI agents named Agent Pete Nivens (played by Jai Courtney) and Agent Mario Hall (played by Anthony Ramos). Nivens is single and very ambitious in his career. Hall is a happily married man with a young son.

The difference between these two men becomes obvious when Nivens complains to Hall about how parents unnecessarily gush about their children to make childless people feel like they’re missing out in life. Nivens basically tells Hall that he thinks being a parent is overrated. Later in the movie, Nivens (who thinks of himself as an “alpha male”) repeatedly manipulates Hall by using Hall’s love for his son as a way for Nivens to get Hall to do what Nivens wants.

Nivens and Hall go to the Charleston Hotel to visit Tom and investigate Tom’s claims. Tom tells these two FBI agents that he hid the robbery money in a storage unit and offers to show it to them as proof. However, Nivens orders Tom to stay at the hotel and says that he and Hall will go to the storage unit by themselves. Tom reluctantly gives them the key to the storage unit and tells them where the storage unit is.

Nivens and Hall go to Tom’s storage unit and find out that Tom was telling the truth, because they find millions of dollars in cash hidden in boxes. Nivens then convinces a reluctant Hall that they should steal all the money for themselves and pretend to everyone else that the money was never there. Nivens appeals to Hall’s desire to be able to pay for whatever his family wants, as a way to persuade Hall that he will never have any more money problems for the rest of his life.

Nivens and Hall are packing up the boxes of cash in their car trunk when Annie suddenly approaches them to ask what they’re doing with Tom’s stuff. Annie mentions that she saw them on the office’s surveillance cameras, and she came outside to investigate. Nivens and Hall lie and tell Annie that Tom asked them to help move some of his items from the storage unit.

Because Tom had told Annie that he was temporarily staying at a hotel due to plumbing repairs in his home, she believes want Nivens and Hall have to say. Even though Annie is suspicious, she asks a lot of leading questions that are easy for the crooked FBI agents to lie about, such as, “How do you know Tom? Did you serve in the Marines with him?” And, of course, they say yes.

Putting aside the fact that they know they’ve been caught on camera taking things out of the storage locker, the stupidity of Nivens and Hall’s decision to steal the money also comes from the fact that they wouldn’t be able to spend all that money without arousing suspicion. And who knows if that stolen bank money has bills that are marked? These are things that FBI agents and other law-enforcement officials are trained to know about, but the corrupt FBI dimwits in this sloppily written movie don’t consider these very realistic factors.

And not to mention that a snake like Nivens wouldn’t hesitate to double-cross his partner in crime, so Hall is incredibly naïve for putting his trust in Nivens. Hall finds out how much of a loose cannon Nivens can be when something happens after Hall and Nivens get back to the hotel and they lie to Tom by saying that they didn’t find any money in the storage unit. What happens next in the hotel sets off a chain of events that lead to Tom going on the run, Annie getting caught up in the danger, and certain FBI agents chasing in dogged pursuit.

When there’s a movie as poorly thought-out as “Honest Thief,” sometimes it can be entertaining because of the action sequences. But the action in “Honest Thief” is very unremarkable and has been seen in dozens of other movies just like it. People get beaten up, there are some explosions, some car chases, some shootouts, some chases on foot. And there are lots of scenes where Neeson just barrels along with injuries that, in real life, would put someone in an emergency room at a hospital.

“Honest Thief” is just another unimpressive action showcase for Neeson as yet another angry and misunderstood loner who’s out for self-righteous vengeance while he goes through the expected motions with gun violence and other predictable stunts. Neeson has been sticking to this formula for quite some time for his action films, so most of his fans should know what to expect. Anyone expecting high-quality entertainment from “Honest Thief” will definitely feel cheated.

Open Road Films released “Honest Thief” in U.S. cinemas on October 16, 2020.

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