In July, 2009 when producer Robert Rodriguez was preparing to announce his pick for director of the much-anticipated Predator sequel, imaginatively titled Predators, many people assumed that British director Neil Marshall was a lock. One of the frontrunners for the job, with titles like Dog Soldiers, Doomsday, and The Descent, a genuine horror masterpiece, already under his belt, he seemed to have all the experience necessary to make a proper Predator film, something the world has been without since 1987.
Instead Rodriguez opted for Hungarian-American filmmaker Nimrod Antal on the strength of his films Kontroll, Vacancy, and the at-the-time upcoming Armored. I'd never seen Kontroll and had found Vacancy to be surprisingly effective but the previews for Armored made it look like a forgettable B-movie, made to languish on a video store shelf. The previews don't do the film justice; Armored may be a B-movie but it's a skillfully made one.
America is a terrible place to be poor and as Armored opens we see that Ty Hackett (Columbus Short) knows that all too well. A decorated veteran of the war in Iraq, he's now trying to raise his teenage brother Jimmy following the death of their parents. Even after having his godfather Mike Cochrane (Matt Dillon) secure him a job at Eagle Shield Security as an armored car driver, the medical bills and mortgage payments pile up and Ty can see no way out, until one night Mike makes him a proposition. In an upcoming run their armored car will be transporting 42 million dollars of Federal Reserve cash; Mike and his crew, the grating Baines (Laurence Fishburne), the quietly menacing Quinn (Jean Reno), and the far less interesting Dobbs and Palmer (Skeet Ulrich and Amaury Nolasco), want to steal it but need Ty, as the newest member of the crew, on board. Initially he rebuffs their offer but after a visit from a cold, bored social worker (the only female role in the entire film) who threatens to take away Jimmy should he lose the house, Ty walks into work the next morning ready to do whatever is necessary. His only condition: No one gets hurt.
The theft goes off without a hitch and the two trucks take the cash to an abandoned fabrication facility. It's at this point that, to absolutely no one's surprise, things go wrong. Baines and Cochrane shoot a homeless man who had the misfortune to see them offloading the cash and Ty has a crisis of conscience, barricading himself and half the cash inside one of the trucks. For the rest of the film Ty tries to stay alive while the team tries to get him out of the truck before their absence is noticed by head office.
As far as plots go it's not Chinatown, or even The Two Jakes, but it works just fine as a setup for some tense moments, great shots, and well-executed action sequences. The film's greatest asset is its photography by Andrzej Sekula; he manages to make Los Angeles look more desolate and miserable than I've ever seen it, and I'm a fan of The Shield. By shooting almost exclusively in the city's decaying industrial sector and making great use of high concrete walls and vast expanses of rusting metal, the photography perfectly conveys the sense of hopelessness felt by Ty as the bank moves in on his home and even his co-workers, whose lives have become a steady grind in which they routinely safeguard more money than they'll ever make. The action scenes too are a strength; they're handled in a very measured, non-Bourne way. The camera stays fixed and as most of the effects seem to be practical rather than CG you're really drawn into the chases, crashes and explosions along the way.
Performances are solid all around, with Dillon, Ulrich, and Fishburne being standouts. Ulrich in particular seems to be getting more interesting as he gets older. We're a long way past Scream and Chill Factor and the years have allowed his face to be believably disillusioned. The film's biggest problems are its characters, most of whom would seem underdeveloped if not for the strength of the performances, and the plausibility of the plot itself. It's all well and good to steal 42 million dollars but the question of how exactly they plan to spend or launder it never comes up. Sure, Ty wants to pay off his bills and live happily ever after but the IRS. tends to notice desperately poor people who suddenly become Baron Fatstacks von Pimpchalice. In fact since they no longer bother trying to enforce tax law for the wealthy this kind of irregularity is all they deal with, yet no one mentions the possibility that the second any of them starts throwing dollars around a latex-gloved taxman is going to be at their door asking them to turn their heads and cough.
It's not Inside Man and certainly didn't make any "Best of 2009" lists but Armored is a damn good heist movie and a great way to spend 88 minutes. Antal demonstrates a good eye for action and a skill for bringing together good actors and allowing them to do their thing. I still think Neil Marshall was the better choice for Predators but now I'm curious to see what Nimrod Antal can do.
Worth watching? Absolutely. It's not high art but it is a well-acted genre piece that deserves some attention.