Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this year with the name 892, the now-retitled thriller Breaking introduces us to beleaguered Lance Cpl. Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) as he’s being escorted by policemen in handcuffs. His appointment at the Veterans Affairs office one morning does not go as planned, ending with a physical outburst after being shorted desperately needed funds due to unresolved school debt. Now, facing the potential of homelessness for his family, Brown-Easley finds himself out of options and walks into a Wells Fargo bank carrying a backpack he says has an explosive device inside. Fast thinking by the bank’s manager Estel (Nicole Beharie) allows her to evacuate all the customers before his threat becomes known, leaving just her and teller Rosa (Selenis Leyva) on the premises with him.
But Brown-Easley makes it clear early on that he’s not out for some six- or seven-figure score from the bank, and that this isn’t a traditional robbery. He doesn’t want some bank’s money; he wants his money, the money he’s owed, and he also wants the platform to tell his story to the media. When conversations with the negotiator outside (Jeffrey Donovan) stall out, he phones news reporter Lisa Larson (Connie Britton) as a lifeline to tap into what happened to him and why he’s doing this. Police outside finally get Brown-Easley in touch with Detective Bernard (the late Michael Kenneth Williams, in his final film role), a fellow Marine who starts to sympathize with his predicament, and aims to get him out of the situation unharmed.
Along with his “Red, White and Blue” entry in 2020’s Small Axe anthology series, Breaking is a cogent argument for Boyega as an acting powerhouse following his three-film stint in the Star Wars universe. His Brown-Easley is understandably indignant about his circumstances and not above getting heated from time to time, but for most of the film, Boyega makes a point of portraying him as polite and penitent during the bomb threat. I’m not sure I’ve seen another bank robbery movie where the robber says “sir” and “ma’am” this much and I’ve certainly never seen one where the robber takes a phone message from a customer for one of the tellers.
Director and co-writer Abi Damaris Corbin leans a little too hard on the pathos (and pop culture references) involved in Brown-Easley talking on the phone with his young daughter, but Boyega makes the moments in which they pray over the phone feel authentic and tragic.
Sadly, Breaking is based on a true story that occurred in August 2017, and even if you don’t know before going into this movie how the actual events concluded, a happy ending seems unlikely. Too often, Hollywood is late to the punch when addressing social issues that matter to people, but the themes about racial inequality and the treatment of veterans remain depressingly relevant. In fact, the inciting event of Brown-Easley’s actions stemming from an unpaid student loan from a for-profit college suddenly became even more front-of-mind in the national conversation recently.
This film is a reminder of what the best kinds of movies like this can do: take complicated and systemic issues around us and channel them through a few souls with whom we can empathize.
Corbin’s intentions are no doubt noble when telling this story, and her message certainly gets across by the film’s conclusion, but she does get swept up in some of the sensationalism inherent in this genre. The film is fittingly tense and generally well-rendered, but some of the editing is a bit showy given the timbre of the story. As with any movie based on a true story, dramatic license was likely used during certain moments of heightened emotion, and a few scenes feel like they’re straying a bit too far from realism. But the ensemble, which includes excellent performances from Beharie and Williams in addition to Boyega, carries the day and does this tragic tale justice.
It may not be the easiest trip to the movies this summer, but Breaking is a sobering reminder of how those who serve overseas are too often underserved when they come home.
New movies coming this weekend
Opening in theaters and streaming on Peacock is Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., a satirical comedy starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown about the first lady of a prominent megachurch who attempts to help her pastor-husband rebuild their congregation in the aftermath of a huge scandal.
Swinging back in theaters is Spider-Man: No Way Home — The More Fun Stuff Version, an extended cut of last year’s box office champion which features 11 minutes of additional and deleted scenes to the superhero flick.
Premiering on Netflix is Ivy + Bean, a children’s comedy starring Keslee Blalock and Madison Skye Validum about an adventure that kindles a friendship between two very different girls: the scrappy and fearless Bean, and the thoughtful and quiet Ivy.