Backpackers Tokyo

John Boyega gives an honest, intuitive and sensitive performance in this fervent if slightly by-the-numbers hostage drama – and it is one of Michael K Williams’s final appearances on film, playing the negotiator.

First-time feature director Abi Damaris Corbin has co-written the screenplay with the British dramatist Kwame Kwei-Armah, inspired by the real case of a depressed US Marine Corps veteran who in 2017 calmly walked into a bank in Atlanta, Georgia, and threatened to detonate the bomb he claimed was in his backpack unless he was paid the $892 he was owed in disability benefits – money that had been suddenly discontinued for opaque bureaucratic reasons, plunging him into poverty.

Boyega plays Brian Easley, a guy who served honourably in the military but like so many in his position has found the transition to civilian life a trial – he has become estranged from his wife and infant daughter, alienated from his wider family, vulnerably housed and without stable employment, depressed and suffering from delusions. When he walks into the bank, his polite, almost diffident manner with the terrified bank clerks may be an indicator of his fundamental decency – or a symptom of his insanity. Selenis Leyva and Nicole Beharie play the bank employees, Olivia Washington is Brian’s anguished wife and Williams is the negotiator – a former military man himself who understands how callous America can be to the guys like him and Brian.

892 is interesting on the implied, unspoken endgame of hostage situations like this – the way negotiators will appear to take the demands seriously to keep the criminal talking, while at some level everyone knows how it is going to play out. And Boyega conveys the fact that it is now not just about – or not at all about – the money which he knows he is not going to get. It is about being heard. Then there is the weird, Stockholm-syndrome solidarity developing between Brian and the bank staff, based partly on their growing appreciation of his troubled humanity and also their (understandable) suspicion that they will be collateral damage if armed police storm the bank.

There is also the question of racism. Brian asks one bank clerk if they have ever been robbed before and what happened to the robber. “Arrested” she replies, from which Brian grimly concludes that this man must have been white – a terrible omen.

892 is a well-crafted film but there are, perhaps inevitably, hints of Zucker-Abrahams cliche in the caring TV news journalist (Connie Britton) who talks to Brian on the phone and the negotiator (Williams) whose integrity is at odds with his cynical bosses who might want to solve the situation with a sniper’s bullet instead of reaching out to Brian and talking him down.

Basically, nothing much evolves or changes in the film’s various personae as it plays out, almost in real time: the brief flashbacks to Brian’s military service and to his later bureaucratic ordeals in the VA office are all telling us what we pretty well knew already.

Boyega’s performance has an essential sympathy and dignity that are vital to this drama; an unshowy sense of self-worth that keeps it together.