892 Review: John Boyega's Powerhouse Performance Elevates A Tense But Familiar Bank Robbery Thriller [Sundance 2022]

It might seem flippant to say that all bank robbery thrillers are the same, but there are only so many ways you can dramatically rob a bank and take people hostage. It's the reason behind the robbery and the person carrying out the crime that's key to making this subgenre stand out. In the case of the Sundance-selected "892" from director Abi Damaris Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah, this robbery is made all the more compelling because it's based on an unfortunately true story about Brian Brown-Easley, a Marine veteran who held up a bank out of desperation after the office of Veterans Affairs mistakenly held one of his benefits checks to pay a college debt. John Boyega ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens") takes the lead with a powerhouse performance in this tense thriller that hits familiar beats but still manages to resonate with a fiercely human center.

This is a Bank Robbery

Taking cues from the likes of "Dog Day Afternoon," Brian Brown-Easley (Boyega) nervously but calmly walks into a Wells Fargo in Atlanta, makes a small withdrawal, and then slides a piece of paper to the teller informing her that he has a bomb. But Brian's not there to hurt anyone or unleash any dissatisfaction through violence. He makes that crystal clear as he frequently apologizes to the two bank tellers (Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva) that he reluctantly takes hostage. He's not even there to actually rob the bank. All he wants is the $892 and change that he's owed, and he wants it directly from the VA, who failed to rectify a mistake that has left Brian with no other option. 

Attempting to talk Brian down while keeping everyone safe is the late Michael K. Williams as the negotiator, while Connie Britton also appears as a local news producer who helped Brian's story reach the airwaves. Both are somewhat thankless roles, though each performer brings a certain level of humanity to the proceedings, even if their characters feel more like tropes than fully fleshed out characters. The same can be said for Brian's wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington) and daughter Kiah (London Covington), who are only there to add emotional stakes. However, flashbacks and phone conversations between Brian and Kiah about "The Lord of the Rings," help to keep us invested in Brian's cause, no matter how misguided it may be.

Where "892" falters is in creating a sense of urgency in the robbery. That may simply be because it's being truthful to the events that transpired, but cinema requires a bit more dramatization in that department. Because Brian has made it clear he's not there to hurt anybody, it doesn't ever feels like there's any real danger, and there's a lot of standing around. That includes the police presence outside of the bank, which seems much more nonchalant and casual than we're used to seeing in bank robberies with hostages like this. Furthermore, brief flashbacks to Brian's time as part of the military during Operation Iraqi Freedom do little to enhance the story and only serve as runtime fillers. When you feel the slog in a movie that runs just under 105 minutes, it might be time to make some cuts. 

Be that as it may, there's some crafty filmmaking going on here. At one point, Abi Damaris Corbin makes a smooth transition between Brian being on the phone in the bank to a flashback where he's sitting in the VA office, frustratingly dealing with the scenario that put him in this position to begin with. It's a seamless shift from scene-to-scene, and you can't help but wonder what Corbin could do behind the camera if she had a bigger budget, which might have made those aforementioned military flashbacks a more significant, meaningful part of the story.

More John Boyega, Please

But "892" is saved from being subpar thanks to two phenomenal performances. First, John Boyega is phenomenal in this film. Channeling the likes of Denzel Washington and Al Pacino, Boyega makes Brian's desperation palpable. He's threatening only insofar that he claims to have a bomb, but he's more on the verge of a full-on emotional breakdown throughout the entire robbery. Boyega is firm but fearful at the same time, well aware that it's likely he's not going to make it out of this alive. He's calm until he's pushed to the brink of his patience. Brian shouldn't have to be here in the first place, and Boyega carries that throughout the entire movie, and you feel every ounce of his pain and frustration.

Also giving a remarkable performance is Nicole Beharie, as one of the bank's managers. Beharie keeps her composure, but like Boyega, she also feels on the verge of having a meltdown at any given moment. Even in moments without dialogue, you can tell she's always contemplating how she and her co-worker can get out of this situation. Though Beharie has mostly been relegated to supporting performances like this, she's increasingly proven that she deserves to be a leading lady, and "892" is only further evidence of that.

While the story at the center of "892" is undeniably compelling, the film has trouble keeping the engine running beyond the natural tension that comes from holding up a bank. If it wasn't for Boyega and Beharie's performances, this probably would have been a letdown. But thankfully, the movie still packs a powerful punch. I'm not sure if it would be so potent if it wasn't based on a true story, especially when the shocking climax comes around, but at the very least, it's a story that demands to be told. 

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10