211 Review: Robbing The Bulgarian Tax Shelter
There's this trend in DTV action cinema that's been developing over the last decade, where many productions are moving to Bulgaria. This is due to the country's rather enticing tax incentives, as well as the fact that crew labor costs can usually be kept pretty low. Isaac Florentine has been shooting there for years – stretching back to Undisputed II – while the most recent pair of Antonio Banderas bangers (Security and Acts of Vengeance) did a decent job avoiding any sort of European architectural signifiers while attempting to pass Sofia off for New York and Ohio. Problem is, when the filmmakers do a poor job location scouting, set dressing, or casting, it can lend the final products this distracting, otherworldly feel, especially for American Redbox action connoisseurs.
Such is the case with 211, where a team of international mercenaries – led by the ruthless, yet simply named Tre (Ori Pfeffer) – need to knock over a Massachusetts bank in order to re-obtain the ill-gotten gains they're spent years amassing through acts of global terrorism. The money's there because the head dingus trying to rip them off transferred the squad’s blood funds to an American institution (a transaction they interrupted via a flurry of automatic fire). Yet they're highly trained soldiers, who will stomp a new mudhole in any civilian standing in their way.
No problem, right? Only, these mercs weren't counting on the interference of one heroic cop (Nicolas Cage) and his son-in-law partner (Dwayne Cameron), who’re cruising by with a juvenile ride-along (Michael Rainey Jr.) in the backseat. The routine traffic stop – as the officers noticed the robbers’ escape SUV parked in the red zone – was chosen to try and keep the cops' high school companion for the day out of harm's way. Yet the perceived ticket leads to a full-blown stand-off with these deadly thieves, who are quick to rain hot lead down on these blue boys' heads.
On paper, that reads like a solid set up for 87 minutes of large-caliber insanity, but former professional snowboarder turned filmmaker York Alec Shackleton (Kush) fills many of the supporting roles with poorly ADR'd Bulgarian and Israeli actors, while never once trying to cover up the fact that he's shooting in Eastern Europe. So, the early establishing scenes come off like segments from old Italian horror movies, where space aliens are trying to imitate human interaction, all while Shackleton couldn't have given them more than a take or two to get it right. This is the Max Fischer school of play acting; your brain recognizing that this is not how real people interact, while simultaneously trying to reconcile the fact that, while the characters keep saying they're in Massachusetts, it’s not any version of New England you can find on a map.
Nicolas Cage recently said he was going to retire from acting, which is both a shame and sort of a relief. The shame of it comes due to Cage churning out some truly memorable genre performances as of late – this year's Mandy and Mom & Dad both contain Peak Cage Crazy – so he's clearly not out of gas as a performer. But then he appears in junk like 211, where half the time he's on sleepy, sneering auto-pilot (not too unlike Bruce Willis) before going completely over the top out of nowhere (a scene where Cage's cop loses it on his superiors showcases the icon tearing down scenery and transforming it into a five-course meal). Cage’s uniformed hero is on his last leg as an officer (following the death of his wife), yet is clearly not ready to turn in his badge and gun. In a way, he feels like the perfect metaphor for the legendary actor’s career at the moment – a guy who knows the end is near, but still has some last-minute heroics in his belly to bestow upon us common folk.
Perhaps the performer who has it the worst is Rainey, whose picked-on kid is wrongfully assigned this unsanctioned sequel to Ride Along as punishment for sticking up for himself against a cadre of white bullies at school. Not only does he have to suffer the humiliation of having his head shoved in the urinal, Rainey spends the majority of the movie's back half scared, anxious or flat out missing while chaos erupts and engulfs the scene. It’s a bummer because the kid’s obviously charismatic, and could’ve been put to better use by an actual director.
There's some interesting subtext regarding Cage's character possibly being a fed up racist, who abhors the fact that literally everyone is walking around with a "camera in their pocket these days", but the movie's too dumb to ever really do anything with those interesting themes. Instead, you're mostly wondering where the "true" bank robbery 211 claims to be based on actually happened (or if it even happened at all), as an Interpol agent (Sapir Azulay) hangs around the outskirts of the crime scene, never really giving any sign that this agency knows how to investigate criminals or crimes at all. In short, everything about 211 rings false – from the exteriors, to the characters, to the wonky dialogue – and in this rather robust modern DTV action arena, that's totally unacceptable.
211 is available now in select theaters and on VOD.