When Armored debuted on DVD and Blu-ray a week and a half ago, it seemed like sort of a welcome-home moment for the movie. Though it was put out by Sony (under its Screen Gems division) and did modest business in wide release late last year, this is the kind of movie engineered for home-video perpetuity: an action-oriented genre film populated by a haphazard grouping of name actors—here Laurence Fishburne, Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, and Skeet Ulrich—with a crystal-clear hook (armored cars!). Hopefully Armored will now find the corps of supporters it deserves.
Sony didn't show the film to critics last December, perhaps just to broadcast the perfunctory nature of its theatrical release. Whatever the case, Armored certainly isn't one of those hide-this-from-the-light-of-day-as-long-as-possible films that usually circumvent advance press screenings. The film may be a little too vanilla for some tastes, workmanlike as it is in telling the story of a heist gone wrong. And it may be the least propulsive film directed by Nimród Antal, the Angeleno of Hungarian extraction who helmed 2003's Kontroll and 2007's Vacancy. But Armored is unusually minor-key, even embittered, in tone, and the stakes feel perilously high for its close-knit characters.
The film takes place in an anonymous city where graffiti seems to blanket every surface and squat, colorless industrial structures—parking garages, warehouses, smokestacks—all appear to be in an advanced state of blight. The film's protagonist, Ty Hackett, played by relative newcomer Columbus Short, has just about everything stacked against him: both his parents having recently died, he must raise his delinquent little brother, Jimmy (Andre Jamal Kinney), while fighting against the bank that wants to foreclose on the family home. He's also dealing with the trauma of his recent tour in Iraq.
Ty works at Eagle Shield Security with his godfather, Mike (Dillon), an old family friend who appears to take his new guardian role seriously. They are armored-car guards, and the camaraderie between them and their colleagues, established through the standard locker-room banter, is one of the film's strongest aspects. After stopping for hot dogs one night on the way home from work, Mike lets Ty in on his elaborate inside-job plan, telling the younger man that he's the only team member yet to come onboard. Ty initially bristles at joining in, but he reluctantly comes around when he considers his precarious personal and financial situation. The heist, of course, quickly goes awry.
Embedded in the story are the kind of real-world signposts that only work in a throwback genre film as earnest as Armored. These men go on dangerous missions that require them to protect immense sums of money for paltry compensation themselves. In the final phase of Ty's disillusionment with his godfather's scheme, he's forced to reevaluate his deepest loyalties on the fly. To put all this into a certain political context, American flags lurk conspicuously in the background of a handful of shots. And Eagle Shield's stoic-patriot supervisor, like a certain former attorney general, goes by the name of Ashcroft.
Armored, however, doesn't try to bottle any form of populist outrage. It seems to claim, rather, that the heist plan and its violent flameout are only possible in a society with such a large and growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. This is all a little crudely sketched out, but James V. Sampson's screenplay plays as authentically furious at the notion of systemic injustice, not opportunistically "relevant."
For Antal, Armored completes a loose trilogy of strenuously linear suspense films having to do with vehicular transport. Kontroll is set in the Budapest subway system, and it is a broken-down car in Vacancy that causes the estranged couple played by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale to put up at the most horrific motor lodge imaginable. Throughout these three films, Antal has proved himself a master at building tension through the careful mapping out of confined spaces—subway tunnels, motel rooms, car interiors, etc. His next film, the dreadlocked-alien retread Predators, will likely require more expansive set pieces and a marked departure from taut storytelling—there is franchise "mythology" to grapple with, after all—but I can't wait to see what he does with the assignment.