**½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, Laurence Fishburne, Columbus Short
screenplay by James V. Simpson
directed by Nimród Antal
by Bryant Frazer Watch enough movies, you get some insights into criminal activity and human behaviour. For example, the more conspirators you involve in your can't-miss heist scheme, the more likely it is that things will go south. Some people are capable of great ruthlessness. Others have a surprising and troubling capacity for cruelty. That lone cop snooping around is about to get in trouble. And that guy who made you promise that nobody would get hurt? He's going to be very, very disappointed.
Each of those archetypes makes an appearance in Armored, an efficient B-movie that Nimród Antal directs with unpretentious flair. Between this and his motel-slasher thriller Vacancy, Antal looks to be building a career as the new studio go-to guy for tense, unfussy action in spartan settings. The characters depicted here by a motley assortment of actors--Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, Laurence Fishburne, Skeet Ulrich, and Fred Ward are all on board the talent-heavy project--are blue-collar in a credible, likable way, and the film's action is limited mainly to an abandoned industrial site somewhere in greater L.A.. That's where a crew of armoured-car security officers intends to stash the loot from two of their trucks as they work up a phoney story about being robbed.
The plot seems dubious from the start, which is why you can't help feeling for the Iraq War vet Ty (Columbus Short, Little Walter from Cadillac Records), the soulful sadsack who gets wrapped up in the plan only because he's trying to save the soul of his little brother (Andre Jamal Kinney), who's near the tipping point of juvenile delinquency. No doubt each of these men, overworked and underpaid, has a sob story of quiet desperation that propels his actions, but the story privileges the needs and experiences of Ty, the film's moral centre. His growing compunction puts him at odds with the group's ringleaders, played by Fishburne and Dillon, and the resulting conflict is the engine driving the film's second half. "There's no bad guys--only good guys," Dillon's Mike announces at the outset. As it turns out, he has it almost entirely backward.
Screenwriter James V. Simpson provides the sort of set-up that allows Antal to really tighten the screws, to work the film's warehouse setting, plus both inside and out of the impenetrable vehicles that give the film its title, in a way that maximizes tension and suspense. Antal uses the widescreen canvas to good effect, framing windows within windows to emphasize multiple points of view (indeed, conflicting principles are what eventually set these men at one another's throats) and favouring a steady yet highly mobile camera that's mindful of spatial dynamics when roaming off to follow someone, underscoring the urgency within a scene as differing agendas unfold in the foreground and background. The performances, too, reek of sweat, worry, and high blood pressure, which is testimony to the collective professionalism assembled in the room. Only Reno, given very little to do relative to his cachet, feels utterly out of place.
All in all, it's an entertaining and occasionally riveting work, an ideal film for Sony to be releasing under their genre subsidiary Screen Gems. But the script relaxes too much, never fleshing out these caricatures and settling for a denouement that tweaks moral conventions without putting any new spin on an old premise. That may be a function of budget limitations as much as a failure of imagination, although Antal does spend the resources to mount an impressive chase involving not one but two big, armoured trucks. Making a kind of virtue of its straightforward, PG-13 predictability--it's violent, but not too violent, profane, but not too profane--Armored is by no means a failure. Even if its successes are minor, it blessedly isn't dumb enough to take up more than 90 minutes of your time.
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THE BLU-RAY DISC
On Blu-ray, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has given Armored the requisite sterling high-definition presentation. The first half of the film is generally well-lit, though a soft and welcoming patina descends quickly into darker, high-contrast territory. Shadow detail is rich in some shots, suggesting that the film's occasionally inky images are accurately rendered and not simply crushed on the low end. The picture has a sprinkling of film grain--not so much that it could create an issue for those philistines who prefer their HD pictures grain-free, but enough to make clear the movie's 35mm origins. Close-ups look terrific, rendering the actors' pores, whiskers, and wrinkles without the harshness or waxiness that sometimes mars an image that has been overly filtered, or that originated in HD. The transfer is encoded in AVC HD (MPEG-4) and letterboxed to 2.40:1, slightly wider than the box-advertised 2.35:1.
Armored has a relatively bright soundscape, with a buzzing, percussive score (by John Murphy) driving lots of multi-channel sound in the high registers, not to mention copious sound effects involving metal banging on metal in a cavernous, warehouse-like environment. That's not to say it won't work your subwoofer--some of the music cues get down there, and every time one of those armoured vehicles starts up there's a satisfying thrum and rumble that will tap your system's subwoofer. The audio is impressively directional, not just in the surrounds but across the front soundstage as well. It's a decent, aggressive mix, in line with what you might expect from a somewhat bigger film, rendered in lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 option is very nice, but an A/B comparison reveals that the DTS soundstage is broader and boasts more separation between instruments in the score, foley, and dialogue.
The commentary track is a strictly B-list affair, featuring producer Dan Farah gabbing with cast members Skeet Ulrich and Milo Ventimiglia. That's right: Apparently, neither the director nor any of three top-billed actors (not to mention Short, who's actually the lead) could be bothered to show up. They soldier forward, pointing out nice Antal shot compositions, seamless VFX work, and the like, but the result is a so-so helping of lightweight anecdotes and interesting moments of actorly banter interspersed with stretches of dead air. There are some telling moments when they discuss material that was excised from the final cut, such as scenes that might have made other characters in the film more sympathetic, but unfortunately none of this footage has been preserved on this disc.
"Planning the Heist: Making Of" (15 mins., 1080i/16x9) is a by-the-numbers piece alternating talking-head interviews, clips, and B-roll. Antal finally materializes along with screenwriter Simpson, producer Farah, and the major players. "Armed and Underground: Production Design" (7 mins., 1080i/16x9) brings production designer Jon Gary Steele into the interview mix for an insider's view of the film's carefully-aged sets (the industrial-site exterior was a real location in Fontana, CA, but the massive interior was built on a soundstage), while "Crash Course: Stunts" (11 mins., 1080i/16x9) taps stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert to tell, among other stories, the one about crawling around on the floor with his kids' Hot Wheels cars to plan the armoured-truck chase scene with Antal. The single best shot of the package is in "Crash Course," showing how Gilbert strapped himself into a frame--painted computer green to allow for easy digital removal from the shots--atop one of the armoured trucks so that an actor could be clearly seen in the driver's seat while Gilbert was controlling the vehicle from above.
HD previews abound--for 2012, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Bounty Hunter, Takers, It Might Get Loud, Soul Power, Extraordinary Measures, "Breaking Bad", The Da Vinci Code, Casino Royale, and, of course, the "Blu-ray Disc is High Definition!" clip reel. The "Blu-ray Disc is...," 2012, and Parnassus spots load up at the front of the disc for (skippable) viewing, right after the standard-def "Undo the Deception," a patronizing 30-second anti-smoking PSA. (I had never seen this before, but apparently it dates back to 2007.) Finally, BD Live features include the now-standard "Movie IQ" overlay that offers trivia and scene-specific information on cast, crew, and music cues--but disables the disc's pop-up menu--and a link to a generic promotional site that now consists of, apropos of nothing, a complete World Cup schedule along with Sony Pictures movie previews. As always, BD Live is just the thing for people who think modern Web browsers aren't clunky enough. Originally published: March 15, 2010.