Review: John Boyega crime drama ‘Breaking’ lacks tension

A young veteran with the weight of the world on his shoulders walks into a bank and almost shyly informs the teller he has a bomb in his backpack. But he doesn’t want to rob the bank. He lets almost everyone leave. What does he want? The $892 he believes he is owed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Breaking” is based on the true story of former Marine Brian Brown-Easley, played by John Boyega (Finn in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy). It first came to the filmmakers’ attention via a 2018 article by Aaron Gell in the military-focused news site Task & Purpose. Easley’s story is part indictment of VA bureaucracy and trigger-happy police, part hostage drama and part character study of a man in severe distress. Unfortunately, the proceedings feel too heavy and diffuse for the punches to land.

The narrative angles downward and never significantly changes its trajectory. There’s little suspense as to the outcome, even if one isn’t familiar with the real events (this reviewer was not). Key pieces of the man are missing, including his troubled marriage and difficult transition back to life at home. Though some shades of his paranoia are depicted, Brown-Easley’s history of serious mental illness is essentially passed over. This isn’t a documentary and shouldn’t be held to exacting journalistic standards, but the lack of context and focus make “Breaking” feel unmoored. It also doesn’t need to be some sort of thrill ride — but a deeper, grittier dive into its protagonist might have helped the film connect.

The film doesn’t delve into the reasons for the missed payment to create something resembling an antagonist — whether that be VA bureaucracy, Brown-Easley’s mental instability or whatever. Rather, we have a protagonist with whom we vaguely sympathize because, apparently, he means no harm to others.

That vagueness is no fault of the acting. The ensemble won a special jury award at Sundance this year. Boyega conveys a man who is past his breaking point. Nicole Beharie is believable as the cool-headed bank manager who knows she’d better not lose her wits. A standout, in one of his final roles, is Michael K. Williams as a compassionate police negotiator. He doesn’t overplay the drama, instead staying focused on connecting with the desperate suspect.

Brown-Easley’s story is interesting and the film’s acting is committed. Unfortunately, as a cinematic experience, “Breaking” fails to compel.


Rated: PG-13, for some violent content and strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: In general release Aug. 26

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