If you count the Sundance premiere of “Mandy,” Nicolas Cage has had no less than five films released in a span of five months — and 2018 isn’t half over yet. Quality doesn’t usually accompany such quantity, though in fact, three of the five (“Mom and Dad” and “The Humanity Bureau” as well as “Mandy”) have been pretty damn good. Balancing things out have been derivative thriller “Looking Glass” and, now, derivative crime meller “211.”
The latter’s publicity materials make a great deal of the film being inspired by a 1997 shootout between the LAPD and bank robbers. But apart from the huge amount of gunfire exchanged, there’s scant resemblance between that event and what’s depicted in York Alec Shackleton’s feature, which comes off as a rote, overstuffed compilation of genre cliches with pedestrian handling of action elements and frequent notes of maudlin contrivance. Nor does it help a generally unconvincing atmosphere that the whole enterprise, while set in a fictitious U.S. burg, was shot in Bulgaria.
The notably drawn-out and bloody altercation which took place in North Hollywood, Calif., two decades ago, began when two heavily armed perps (who’d met as bodybuilding enthusiasts at Gold’s Gym) found police already gathering outside as they tried to exit a Bank of America branch they’d just robbed. Both were eventually killed, but not before they’d wounded 12 cops, eight civilians and damaged a great deal of property in the immediate area.
Here, however, the script, credited to John Rebus, based on Shackleton’s screenplay, immediately begins piling on more complications than it can handle by opening the action in Afghanistan. There, a quartet of murky multinational mercenary types (Ori Pfeffer, Sean James, Michael Bellisario, the star’s son Weston Cage) ambush a white-collar war profiteer who was about to flee without paying them their share of ill-gotten gains. They massacre his entire security team, then the man himself once he’s revealed part of the loot was deposited at an American bank.
Next thing we know, these bad hombres are planning to storm said bank in the city of Chesterford — although since they’re willing to kill anyone and everyone on a whim, it makes little sense that they’d take the trouble to target that specific institution.
Meanwhile, grizzled cop Mike Chandler (Cage), still reeling from his wife having recently died of cancer, is sharing a squad car with Steve MacAvoy (Dwayne Cameron), the husband of his semi-estranged daughter (Sophie Skelton). She’s just found out she’s pregnant, which makes everybody happy. The men are less happy to learn they’ve been saddled with another youthful surprise: black teen Kenny (Michael Rainey Jr. from Starz series “Power”). He’s been ordered to get scared straight via a ride-along as punishment for fighting, even though he was defending himself against school bullies. Further clogging the roster of simplistically etched characters are several more cops, including a comedy-relief duo and second-billed Cory Hardrict, whose character remains stubbornly peripheral.
Once our protagonists accidentally find themselves as the first police on site at the crime scene, the goons double-down on rough treatment of hostages while firing wildly at anyone in the bank’s vicinity. One might well wonder why, if the villains are such experienced, globe-trotting paramilitary types, they create a bloody mess sure to keep the maximum number of lawmen glued to the scene, rather than negotiating an escape. In any case, none of the subsequent high body count makes much impact, because Shackleton evinces no particular flair for staging action. Further, even those victims that aren’t simply extras are so superficially etched that we have no emotional investment in their fates.
There are additional factors that tip “211” from mediocrity toward the near laughable: crudely sentimentalized heroes; inexplicable dialogue choices, such as when one evildoer gratuitously informs the already cowering, terrified hostages, “We’re not playing games today!” And Mike and Steve yell the name of their imperiled ride-along so often that we expect someone to exclaim, “They killed Kenny! You bastards!!”
Former pro snowboarder Shackleton does an uneven job passing off the Bulgarian locations as a generic U.S. suburb. More problematically, the script plays like a rough approximation of Americanisms learned from movies: The on-the-nose speech, paint-by-number characters, awkward mix of bloodshed and schmaltz, excess of name-checked hot-button issues (bullying, terrorism, racial profiling) each feel purloined from other, better cop thrillers. The result is too cluttered to be dull, but so inorganic that its emphatic wrong notes often risk unintentional humor.
Unsurprisingly, the director doesn’t get very good work from a cast asked primarily to ramp up the intensity on stereotypes. One can’t blame Cage for appearing disinterested, with the exception of one nice bit — perhaps the sole quiet, well-written scene here — where Mike has a brief squad-car heart-to-heart with Kenny over the kid’s abuse by schoolmates.
While seldom credible, the film is nonetheless adequately assembled in tech/design terms, though its lack of aesthetic personality beyond basic slickness is underlined by composer Frederik Wiedmann’s routine action-pic bombast.