After having his character thrown to the side and become a complete afterthought in the sequel Star Wars trilogy, it’s nice to see John Boyega step into the independent film scene with stellar roles in one of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, “Red, White and Blue,” and now, Breaking. Boyega’s performance as a veteran pushed to the limit in Abi Damaris Corbin’s latest film is far and away the best work I’ve seen from the young star. But while there are strong performances all around, the acting showcase doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch that Dog Day Afternoon — a film with many similar qualities — did in 1975.
Based on a true story, the plot of Breaking is heavily reminiscent of the aforementioned Dog Day Afternoon — which will be referenced quite a few times here for comparison’s sake — and Michael Bay’s Ambulance (bear with me on this). The film follows Marine Corps veteran Brian Brown-Easley, a man on the brink of being homeless and a strained relationship with his ex-wife (played by Olivia Washington) and his daughter, Kiah (London Covington). After being screwed over by the VA office, Easley takes matters into his own hands and stages a hostage situation at a Wells Fargo Bank.
Similarly to another recent film, Emily the Criminal, Breaking is a film about someone pushed to their breaking point (no pun intended). In both cases, the main character takes drastic measures after constantly being screwed over by the world around them. John Boyega gives a perfect performance as the tormented Easley. He’s not a bad guy, per se — yes, he’s holding up a bank — and you see that he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Does this justify his actions? Not at all. But in the scenes where Easley shares a phone call with his daughter or even converses with the bank tellers he’s keeping hostage, you see that there is good in him much like Luke saw in his father in Return of the Jedi. When the audience discovers the amount of money that Easley is demanding, you’ll realize that he’s carrying this mission out of principle above all else. He doesn’t want the bank’s money, he wants the VA to take responsibility. This humanizes the film far more than these films generally do, but now you’ll also see where the comparison to Ambulance comes into play. In Ambulance, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s character Will is a veteran in need of $231,000 — far more money than Easley is demanding — which leads him to also hold up a bank with his brother in the film.
And credit to director Abi Damaris Corbin for her handling of the trauma that Easley suffers from. The overall message of the film is painted out but never forcefully hitting you over the head. The film lets the viewer see what occurs and come to their own conclusion. And on the occasion that Easley begins having flashbacks, Corbin made the decision to weave in vignettes of Easley’s time as a Marine. Again, a strong choice that shows that less can be more.
But Boyega is not the only one who gives a strong performance. Nicole Beharie (42) and Selenis Leyva (Spider-Man: Homecoming) play the two bank employees, Estel (Beharie) and Rosa (Leyva), being held hostage in the film. The two, while both very scared, juxtapose one another in the way that they handle the situation. Estel is attempting to be proactive when she can and just wants to get back to her son. Rosa, on the other hand, barely moves a muscle beyond one point in the film and her trembling is palpable. As important as it was to cast the lead role perfectly, just as much emphasis was put on the bank employees; another reason why Breaking is better than most modern attempts at films in the genre. You have nothing in a film like this if the hostages aren’t believably petrified; even if the lead performance is show-stealing. Michael K. Williams plays Eli Bernard, the officer primarily dealing with Easley. Williams serves the role well as the straight cop trying to talk Easley off of the ledge. Bernard’s another good guy just trying to do the right thing; he’s just on the right side of the law.
Where Michael Bay’s film follows the tradition of putting the pedal to the metal and dialing everything up to 11, Breaking is like a Lumet film; focusing on dialogue and natural tension. That said, Breaking does have one similar quality to a Michael Bay film: It doesn’t waste any time getting right into the robbery. Within 10 minutes, you have gotten the SparkNotes synopsis of Easley’s life and relationships and are inside the Wells Fargo Bank. While I was expecting this first go-around to be Easley scouting out the scene, he just goes for it and the film takes off from there. The fast start isn’t maintained throughout the entire runtime of the film, for better or worse. The film slowing down does allow for some breathing room and personal moments, but for whatever reason, the film never matches the intensity of a Dog Day Afternoon despite much of the hostage situation resembling the classic. Maybe due to Boyega’s performance being far more subdued than Pacino’s in Dog Day Afternoon, maybe due to the way the itself played out, whatever the case, there’s never that memorable “Attica!” moment or scenes where the negotiations are on the brink of falling through.
I do realize that it’s unfair to compare any film to a classic — take note, Russo brothers — but the comparisons are inevitable. The strengths just outweigh the weaknesses of the film, and Breaking is far and away Boyega’s best performance in a film full of superb performances, but there’s still room for the film to have been better. But we all know about John Boyega; watch out for Nicole Beharie who has a small, but impactful, role in the upcoming satire, Honk for Jesus.
Bleecker Street will release Breaking in theaters on August 26.