Armored seems like an efficient, no-nonsense, old-fashioned little b-movie, until you find it actually cost $25m dollars to produce. Chicken feed compared with the likes of Avatar and Sherlock Holmes, of course, but still you have to wonder what could have cost so much. Easy answer: the incongruously starry cast, headed by Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne and Jean Reno – as armoured-truck security-guards who plot an audacious $42m heist (why not $25m?).
The trio are actually supporting players, but as the leading man – Columbus Short, playing their conscience-stricken, Iraq-war-veteran collaborator – is a relative unknown, he's actually eighth billed in the credits. This is, nevertheless, quite a wise choice of role for an up-and-coming actor – harder to see what attracted his illustrious co-stars to the project, apart from what must have been quite beefy salaries (Dillon being a relatively recent Oscar nominee for Crash.)
Perhaps they saw Nimrod Antal's Budapest-made debut feature Kontroll (2003) and scented talent. For a while the native Los Angeleno of Hungarian ancestry, who studied in Budapest, was very much touted as the next 'European' director likely to graduate from arthouses to multiplex and big-budget enterprises.
He seems to be playing something of a "long game" career-wise, with his first Stateside job being the economic thriller Vacancy (2007), and his second being the only marginally more ambitious Armored. Antal remains more of a matter of promise than achievement – and there certainly isn't much progression in terms of essential quality from Kontroll to Vacancy to Armored.
He handles first-time screenwriter James V Simpson's tough-guy ensemble and situations with reasonable skill over the brisk 88-minute running-time, hommaging Michael Mann's Heat with dutiful doggedness as he propels us forward through the notably un-twisty plot with a combination of dourness and machismo. Indeed, the only female speaking part is a nameless child welfare officer, played by Drag Me To Hell's unforgettable toothless crone Lorna Raver.
Antal finds some pleasingly rusted post-industrial corners of Los Angeles for a film whose geographical setting is very carefully (and expertly) unspecified throughout. But he isn't exactly stimulated by such landscapes – and perhaps he should consider a sojourn back in Hungary to recharge his creative juices. Rather like the shell of Armored's eponymous vehicles, as far as Antal is concerned Hollywood's top tables are proving somewhat impenetrable at present.*
27th January, 2010
¦ Empire cinema, Sunderland, UK, 26.Jan.10 ( £2.95) ¦
* POSTSCRIPT [16.Mar.10] : He's getting closer! Has been named as director of upcoming sequel Predators starring Adrien Brody and Danny Trejo. Reported budget: $40m.