Unwatchable even by the subterranean standards of a direct-to-video Nicolas Cage thriller, director York Shackleton’s “211” is the kind of low-grade schlock that leaves you with a newfound respect for the basic competence that most bad movies bring to the table. Not even the opening credits feel totally credible, as they insist the film is “based on a screenplay” by the filmmaker, a point of attribution that doubles as a brutal self-own.
These are but a few of the many haunting questions that loom over “211”: “What?,” the more existential “why?,” and of course “wait… how the hell did this movie about war profiteers in Afghanistan suddenly become a heartwarming story about a black teenager who learns how to stop worrying and love white cops?”
Also, when the film’s IMDb trivia page says that “Nicolas Cage read the script in 2014,” was that the only time? And finally: “What the hell is a ‘211,’ anyway?”
Shackleton is actually kind enough to provide several different answers to that last question, though a little work from the audience is required to suss them out. First and foremost, “211” is a very VOD-friendly title for alphabetized pay-per-view menus. It’s also the number of plot lines that are squeezed into this movie’s interminable 87-minute running time, each of which contains 211 zombified line deliveries from actors who seem to be reading their dialogue off a tiny distant teleprompter.
Of course, a 211 is police code for a robbery — a robbery like the one that five heavily armed military bros attempt at a bank in small town America (unconvincingly played by a Bulgarian soundstage) after they’re stiffed on the bill for the dirty work they did in the Middle East. A robbery like the one that widowed cop Mike Chandler (Cage) responds to during one of his last days before retirement.
Poor Mike. He’s already having a morning, even before the goon squad of beardos rolls into his idyllic burg with assault rifles at the ready. First, the good news: His daughter (Instagram influencer Amanda Cerny) is having a baby! Mike gets the info secondhand, courtesy of his squad partner and son-in-law, Steve (Dwayne Cameron), and this delegation of duty makes for the film’s only nuanced emotional beat; even though Cage is borderline comatose for most of the movie, his clenched sorrow effectively sells us on the idea of a father who’s grown too estranged from his emotions to feel the magnitude of becoming a grandpa.
Mike is even less thrilled about the next curveball that comes his way: He has to host a ride-along with a kid named Kenny (“Amateur” star Michael Rainey Jr.). A bullied African-American teen who gets in trouble for punching back, Kenny is punished with a day in the back of a cop car. It’s a loaded place for any person of color to be these days, and only becomes more so after Mike laments the current state of police work (“Everyone’s got a camera, and everyone’s got a lawyer”). The racially charged dynamic between these characters is never made any more explicit than that — and they really only share a few minutes of screen-time — but rest assured that Mike learns that black lives matter, and Kenny discovers that white police officers are people, too. It’s so nice how domestic terrorism brings everyone together.
All of this happens against the backdrop of a violent bank heist that’s staged with the clarity and purpose of a purse-snatching. We never learn a single thing about the thieves, nor are we given any reason to differentiate between them. One of the mercs has a bandana, maybe? Needless to say, we’re not on “The Rock,” anymore — character actors had faces, then. These guys just have really big guns, and they’re not afraid to use them. Of course, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with an AR-15 is a reaction shot of Nicolas Cage with a pistol.
It takes 40 minutes for the robbery to get underway (we naturally have to make time for the subplot about the globe-trotting Interpol agent who’s hot on their tail, and to introduce the rookie cop who’s slowing down the rest of the force), and mere seconds for the whole thing to sputter into nonsense.
Supposedly inspired by a 1997 Los Angeles heist that resulted in a firefight so extraordinary it convinced the cops to up their arsenals going forward, the ensuing shootout is basically “Black Hawk Down” on Main Street, but shot on a sitcom budget. There’s no attention to detail or character, nor or to the underlying conflicts between them — you might vaguely remember a sniper rifle and some business with a cell phone. Kenny’s mom is a nurse at the local hospital, so there’s another 10 minutes down the drain. It’s all just death and vamping.
Maybe the action was hobbled by the fact that Cage broken his ankle during shooting, or maybe it’s so dire because Shackleton lacked the chops and/or the time to keep things straight. Maybe Cage improvised his character’s immortal final line: “I’m gonna need some pics.” Maybe this is the kind of pay-for-hire project that affords him the chance to make stuff like “Mandy,” and we should just say “thank you” that he’s willing to shoot 211 pieces of garbage just like it if lets him shoot the moon every once in a while.
“211” will open in theaters and on VOD on June 8th.