The press notes for York Alec Shackleton’s 211 claim the film was inspired by the Battle of North Hollywood, a real-life shootout between two heavily armed bank robbers and the Los Angeles Police Department the morning of February 28, 1997. The suspects held the police off for almost an hour thanks to their military grade assault weapons and body armor, against which the police’s standard issue pistols and 12-gauge shotguns were useless. The perpetrators were killed, but only after spending nearly 2,000 rounds of ammunition and wounding eighteen police officers and civilians. The attack was a watershed moment in the militarizing of America’s police: soon afterwards, forces all over the country began arming themselves with semi-automatic weapons like M16s and AR-15s. Many of the issues currently facing American law enforcement—an over-reliance on violent escalation with suspected criminals, local departments investing in military surplus weapons and vehicles, and a general siege mentality among many officers—can in part be traced back to this “battle.” In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the ensuing #NeverAgain movement, and the reinvigorated debate on America’s lax gun ownership laws, there has perhaps never been a better time to re-examine this tragedy and the way it was manipulated to justify transforming the United States police into a standing army.
211 doesn’t do that. In fact, the film has nothing to do with the Battle of North Hollywood. It isn’t even set in the 1990s. It opens, sensibly enough, in Afghanistan where a cadre of shady businessmen are murdered by a cadre of even shadier ex-special forces soldiers over some “misplaced” funds. When told that their money has been scattered to banks all over the world, these battle-hardened killing machines decide the only sensible thing to do is spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on explosives, body armor, automatic weapons, and ammo so they can hold up ONE bank for a grand total of MAYBE one million. Naturally the plan goes south—bombs are detonated, bystanders fragged, hostages murdered, and cops mowed down like so many Somalians in Black Hawk Down (2001). And somewhere in the middle of it all a very tired and very sad Nicholas Cage does his damnedest to say his lines with enough energy that he can earn yet another paycheck for yet another down payment to the IRS.
Even if 211 didn’t ostensibly base itself on a real-life tragedy, it largely fails as a bank heist film by overloading itself with a bland supporting cast. There’s Officer Steve MacAvoy (Dwayne Cameron), a policeman of indeterminate origin—his accent veers between vaguely Bostonian to confusingly Nordic at a moment’s notice—who learns the morning of the attack that his wife Sarah (Amanda Cerny) is pregnant! There’s Kenny (Michael Rainey Jr), a troubled black teen arrested for “assault” after fighting back against three white bullies at his high school, having a mandated ride-along with the cops to get scared straight. And finally there’s Cage himself as Officer Mike, Steve’s grumpy father-in-law with a roiling suspicion for smart phones, the nanny state, and emotional communication with his loved ones. All three get caught up in the heist and learn valuable life lessons: Mike that #BlackLivesMatter, Kenny that #BlueLivesMatter, and Steve that #MyLifeMattersIWishIdStopBleedingOut.
It’s all patent nonsense which, if matched with compelling action, could at least have been tolerable. But the film has no feeling for how to choreograph action or build tension. This is a film where violence simply happens, and when it does it’s loud, obnoxious, poorly framed, and derivative of a thousand more competent movies. By the end of the film when the five soldiers lay dead, I realized I only remembered watching one of them die, and I had just watched them get killed by NICOLAS CAGE. Everything about 211 reeks of amateurism: the hackneyed script, the lousy performances, the uninspired direction, the underwhelming action. It makes one long for the subtle touch of XLrator Media.