As a real-life bank-hostage story with a social alarm set to squealing-klaxon levels, Breaking finds its most conveniently posterized parallel in Dog Day Afternoon. Both are ethnographies of escalated emotion that acknowledge and affirm uniquely American aggravation. But where Sidney Lumet indulged in New Hollywood’s aesthetic flamboyance, director / co-writer Abi Damaris Corbin invokes more of modern America’s anxious fatalism. 

That leaves Breaking a high-strung and truthful, if not totally transfixing, transcription of tragedy. As written by Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah, its assessment of American priorities is tough but fair. The lead performance from John Boyega is also terrific, and it’s a pleasure to see the late Michael K. Williams (The Wire) go out with such a fine supporting swan song. But the film also makes just enough concessions to bar itself from the upper echelon of such stories. (One of them is its title, shifted from 892 — as it was known at 2022’s Sundance Film Festival and which hints more deeply at the film’s more fruitful exploration of inequitable value. Breaking sounds like a generic dumbing-down for the Redbox wall.)

Boyega plays Brian Brown Easley, a Marine Corps veteran whose discouragement and depression over a withheld Veterans Affairs disability check led him to issue a bomb threat at a Wells Fargo Bank in 2017. Most audiences will know Boyega as Finn from the most recent Star Wars cycle, in which the British actor’s boyish exuberance for ethical fortitude amid intergalactic adventure propped up an ultimately underwritten role. There is no such disappointment here, as Boyega carries Easley’s tension, and the film’s, in and on his shoulders from the beginning. If Easley makes a threat, he punctuates it with “sir” or “ma’am.” He assesses situations speedily if not successfully, almost as if he’s losing count of the cutthroat choreography pounded into his head from military service. 

Boyega plays Easley as a man stuck at an all-too-familiar intersection of respect and rejection. He lives in a world where apologies are scripted on yellowed pages crumbling and curled from misuse, insincere if they’re invoked at all and in service of programs that are but proxy bureaucratic labyrinths with minotaurs around every corner. All those “helpful” VA pamphlets are as dusty as they are flimsy. In one great shot, Corbin emphasizes how these leaflets all read YOU rather than WE. It’s an isolation, a separation, a misdirected all-caps assignment of blame, a pronoun as reduction to a problem that can’t be solved — a blunt, but effective, exploration of our nation’s collective tossing-out of military veterans like Easley.

Boyega’s performance remains as dialed into the heightened awareness of that worldview as the immediacy of the situation Easley creates. And while Breaking creates few opportunities to expel much of its very nervous energy, Boyega nails them — particularly when he takes a message from a bank customer phoning to inquire about a 401(k) mistake. There is as much discomfort in Easley’s silences and hesitations as in his escalation to a harrowing, fed-up shout that brings Boyega’s toes right to the Denzel Washington line but doesn’t try to claim it. Where Washington amplified earnestness in John Q (another analog), Boyega leans into a wearying inevitability Easley has accepted: The outcome of this is certainly going to be his death.

Laboring to prevent that is Eli Bernard (Williams), a police detective who commandeers official negotiations with Easley. The conversations between Boyega and Williams elevate the pulse of an otherwise pokey second act, and Williams also wisely underplays details about Bernard’s method, such as a preference to FaceTime with Easley’s estranged wife so he can vigilantly visualize the people about whom Easley cares. It’s not to manipulate Easley into giving up but to scale his perspective away from an infatuation with institutional horror and toward remembrance of the individual humanity he feels has been left behind. As Boyega and Williams’ inflections and emphases ebb and flow, it creates far better modulation of dramatic tension than a disappointing score from Michael Abels and conventional “thriller” editing rhythms can muster.

While the film does suggest agents of law enforcement just follow orders in their own dehumanizing and purposefully confusing system, Breaking still makes some miscalculations on that other side of the wall. There’s too much of Jeffrey Donovan’s Georgia-cracker hardass simply by virtue of him being here at all, and the climax culminates with a strangely distasteful bit of suspense surrounding whether someone in the bank has been shot. That beat runs counter to Breaking’s appropriately pragmatic resignation that the scenario will likely end the way Easley believes it will — and with lies that further console the comfortable and investigations that bury all inconvenience.

Thankfully, Corbin corrects this moment with a chilling conclusive image that suggests uselessly shed blood is forever stamped into ever-cheapening fiber of American institutions. Like the many other merits of Breaking, such forcefulness renders its flaws forgivable.