If you’re like me, and you’ve only ever seen John Boyega in Star Wars and The Circle (I know, there are a couple things I need to catch up on), you probably know that he’s a good actor, but you might not expect him to give one of the best performances of the entire year. Boyega’s performance in Breaking is so good, in fact, that it’s practically the entire reason the movie works at all.
In this film based off a true story, Boyega plays Brian Brown-Easley, a divorced, former U.S. Marine with a young daughter who adamantly believes that he’s owed money by the Veterans Admission. After repeated rejections saying that he can’t receive his payout until he pays off a debt he owes (which he denies being the case), Brian decides to bring a bomb into a local bank and hold two of the workers hostage until he’s payed what he believes he’s owed by the V.A.
Breaking is just the latest in a growing trend of movies that shows the troublesome ways the U.S. government treats those who served their country. Last year’s Encounter, starring Riz Ahmed and Octavia Spencer is another good example (albeit with a very different plot). Brian’s reason for doing what he does isn’t for the money — he simply would have robbed a bank if he wanted to do so. His mission is more about sending a message to the American people about how veterans are cast aside and forgotten than it is about regaining what ultimately amounts to a relatively small sum.
And with its fairly broad commentary, Breaking can sometimes get a bit in-the-weeds with its messaging. It’s often messy, doesn’t always stay focused on its main topic, it forgets that there are two hostages in the bank for extended stretches, and it abruptly changes its point of view towards the third act. But none of this lasts long enough to overshadow the work that Boyega is doing.
Through and through, this is an actor’s showcase, and it works because Boyega is on board from the first minute. His character is absolutely desperate and about to become homeless, so if you have any shade of human empathy, you feel for him immediately. And as more details are slowly revealed about him throughout the film, you realize that he’s not a bad guy at all — he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He doesn’t want to hurt himself. He just wants what’s fair for himself and for all the other people like him. Breaking is very much about the people who have come to be on the margins of society through no fault of their own, and the smallest things that will push them to the brink. Brian isn’t a deadbeat dad, he’s not a hothead, and he’s repeatedly (and ironically) polite and thoughtful towards the people he’s holding hostage. The story is more sad than thrilling, and it al works because of Boyega.
His performance, then, is buttressed by the now late, great Michael K. Williams. Williams plays Eli Bernard, the negotiator with the police force whose job is to nonviolently deescalate the situation with Brian. If it wasn’t for Boyega’s showcased performance, Williams would be the obvious standout. He’s intense yet tender. By-the-book yet gracious. While the film is inconsistent, any scene between Boyega and Williams immediately will have your eyes glued to the screen. They’re that good together.
Co-writer (along with Kwame Kwe-Armah) and director Abi Damaris Corbin may get a little sidetracked here and there in Breaking, but it’s the emotional core that makes it worth watching. Her team-up with Boyega and Williams makes for an intensely raw emotional experience, and one that won’t be forgotten any time soon.