Smart, tight thriller from Nimrod Antal (the great Kontroll) squeezes an old formula for highly-coiled tension.
Director Nimrod Antal took a circuitous route to Hollywood. Of Hungarian descent, he was born in Los Angeles, but moved to Hungary in 1991 to learn and work, making music videos and TV commercials until he made Kontroll, his first feature-length film, which became a hit on the festival circuit in 2003. An atmospheric, propulsive work, Kontroll is set entirely in the Budapest subway system in the post-midnight hours, following a team of ticket inspectors who must deal with unruly nocturnal passengers and scofflaws, a budding serial killer, and an angelic young woman.
Kontroll’s mixture of fantasy, comedy, drama, and mystery, and Antal’s effective use of shadows and dark places, made him a natural for Vacancy, his first studio effort. Antal maximized the possibilities of a single motel room and the susceptibility of fear. While some directors shy away from shadowy effects, pushing their “horror” efforts toward the anemic television school of lighting, Antal embraces shadows as what they are: the absence of light, allowing for the imagination to pump up the suspense.
Thus, it’s no surprise that half of the pleasure in watching Armored comes from seeing how Antal stages and paces the action. The other half comes from the very strong performances.
In its structure, Armored is everything genre fans might expect. The ‘crime gone wrong’ narrative dates back decades, after all, and it’s easy enough to guess the trajectory both of the characters and the plot. (The script is credited to first-timer James V. Simpson.)
Ty Hackett (Columbus Short), a new guard for an armored truck company, gets the wits scared out of him when a delivery comes under attack on an isolated, lonely stretch of road. He’s relieved when his fellow drivers reveal the attack to be simply an initiation, but he’s not so happy when he finds out that the “initiation” was, in fact, a dry run for a daring daylight robbery.
A military veteran, Ty is desperate for more money so he can keep the family home and a roof over the head of himself and his younger teenage brother Jimmy (Andre Jamal Kinney). His older brother worked as an armed guard but was killed, eliciting sympathy and support for Ty from his late brother’s best friend Mike (Matt Dillon) and a small group of other armed guards, including Baines (Laurence Fishburne), Quinn (Jean Reno), Palmer (Amaury Nolasco), and Dobbs (Skeet Ulrich).
The guards have cooked up a scheme to get away clean with $42 million, and Mike is convinced that Ty will want in; it’s Mike’s way of looking out for his dead buddy’s family. But Ty flares up in righteous anger at the suggestion of impropriety, and only a last-second visit from a child welfare agent pushes him to cast his lot reluctantly with the would-be thieves. Naturally enough, he insists he will only go along if no one gets hurt, and, naturally enough, someone gets hurt, prompting Ty’s righteous anger to manifest itself in a way that pits him against the rest of the crew.
Short, who may be most familiar from the otherwise forgettable Stomp the Yard (2007), proves himself fully capable of carrying the picture. His righteous bearing radiates from within; he’s a little stiff, but it fits the character. That allows Dillon and Fishburne to flex their muscles as sympathetic co-workers who transform into heartless mercenaries. Reno adds flavor, as does Fred Ward as a truck company supervisor. Antal is even able to make Milo Ventimiglia tolerable as a hapless cop.
Throughout, Antal’s snappy pace keeps the overall flow surging forward, individual sequences build and diminish nicely, and the director makes the most of a minimum of settings. The result is a satisfying, smart, tight thriller that squeezes an old formula for every ounce of its highly-coiled tension.