Hollywood now believes that all genre material must be weekend-winning event spectaculars with “dark” themes and “disorienting” editing, so coming across the honest B-movie craftsmanship of Armored—the number seven movie in America!—feels a bit like witnessing the perfect crime (even if it’s too unassuming to get away with much lucre).
In 2003, the young Los Angeles-born and —bred Hungarian filmmaker Nimrod Antal made Kontroll, an ingenious, pulsating parable-thriller set entirely within the Budapest subway system; returning stateside, he helmed the niftily Hitchcockian, classily skuzzy motel-creeper meta-horror Vacancy on a relative shoestring. He’s once again working with relatively little money, and even fewer producers looming over his shoulder telling him how to spend it—no “protecting the investment” by splurging for a few extra preview-friendly armored-truck smash-ups.
Not that it would have been such a bad idea to throw some money at an uncredited script doctor, to punch up the building-block archetypal characterizations and less-Fulleresque-than-functional corny dialogue (“Was that part of the plan? Huh, was it?!?”) in newbie scribe James V. Simpson’s gruff, earnest script. Still, Simpson sets up a chewy allegory—Iraq hero Ty (Columbus Short) fought for his country, only to come back and find a job, for Captain Ashcroft (geddit?) of Eagle Security (geddit?), protecting other people’s money, including the money of the bank that’s about to foreclose on his house (timely!)—and an efficient structure: a six-pack of armored car guards (mentor Matt Dillon and wild card Laurence Fishburne are the most famous and thus the most prominent), Ty reluctantly included, plot to fake their own hold-up, only to see their too-neat-to-fail plot swerve quickly into manly double-cross and ticking-clock lockdown in a not-entirely-abandoned warehouse.
Antal brings this boxy, rumbling vehicle in under 90 minutes, and he does it in style—not just spatially coherent cutting, but crisp boxes-within-boxes framings, plus the occasional sub-Sergioleonian low angle and looming close-up. Everybody rips off Hitchcock, always and forever, but Antal seems to have actually learned from him: There’s a really nifty sequence built around of a small, crucial object concealed in a clenched fist—just like in Notorious—and Antal creates tension, throughout, from tightly managed sound design and, especially, offscreen space. The fear of detection—the most effective way to build suspense—is key here, and the metal catwalks and corridors of the warehouse are an ideal environment. (Before he figures out a way to get out, Ty is trapped in the back of one of the armored cars, and forced to watch and wait, like immobile Jimmy Stewart and the immobile spectator, for the bad guys to come get him.)
It’s unclear whether we’ll ever be able to draw an auteurist bead on Antal, but for now, he’s the only genre filmmaker I can name off the top of my head who could have hacked it as a studio assembly-lineman during the postwar years. In a time in which most of my fellow critics are all complained out regarding Hollywood’s willful abdication of “the core competencies”—it’s so, so hard to still complain about incoherent editing in action movies, we lost, apparently, that’s just how they look now—this is not nothing. (Oh, I can name another: Martin Campbell. Why the Bond producers prefer renaissance hack Marc Forster is a whole other, perhaps even longer blog post.) Sony didn’t screen Armored for critics, which is perplexing: if you had to watch Hollywood filler on a regular basis you’d be falling over yourself to overpraise this movie, too. Indeed, we’re far more likely than the average moviegoer to cotton to this resolutely square, comparatively still piece of throwback work. But if you care at all about moviemaking as a fundamentally blue-collar process—like a really nice bit of welding, where the art is in finding the best way to apply your craft—you should see Armored.