I just love movies that contain, in their opening minutes, lines like these from Armored, a gritty little neo-noir that made next to no impact on the box office in 2009: “It’s clean. There’s no bad guys. Nobody’s gonna get hurt.” That’s all it takes for me to know that, in the classic noir tradition, it’s actually going to get quite dirty, and that a lot of people, some good, some bad, and some just morally muddled, are about to get not only hurt, but flattened by a speeding truck.

The truck in question — two of them, actually — are armored cars, and the destruction in question is set in motion when their drivers and crew fake a hijacking of the vehicles in order to abscond with $42 million in cash. This inside job is led by Matt Dillon, who even before the heist gets underway looks like a snake who’s been repeatedly beaten with a burnt stick. His equally grimy co-conspirators include Jean Reno, Laurence Fishburne, and Skeet Ulrich. Their boss, who isn’t involved in the plot, is played by Fred Ward, who probably isn’t a strong enough actor to engage in believable double-dealing and thus is relegated by the director mostly to the sidelines.

There‘s one other important player in this tight, all-male ensemble drama — a young Iraq war vet, played by a relatively unknown actor named Columbus Short. He’s in a bad way, financially, but has scruples, and must be cajoled by Dillon to join in the heist. However, a crisis of conscience intervenes after the thieves kill a homeless person who stumbles on their hideaway, setting in motion the plan’s death spiral. Unfortunately, Short isn’t much of a discovery; his performance is bland and forgettable, creating a huge hole at the center of this movie.

There are some nifty elements here and there. After Short freaks out, he locks himself into one of the armored cars and wreaks all manner of havoc in an attempt to short-circuit the heist, forcing the others to try to break in to the truck — which, after all, is armored — by laboriously hammering out the hinges of its back door. The insistent clanging sounds eerily like a prison cell slamming shut, and goes on for so long that it eventually starts to seem less like the sound of a mallet hitting a spike, and more like a piece of minimalist music tolling these characters’ blasted fates.

There’s also a chase scene between the two armored cars that’s as well-directed and well-edited as any similar scene in recent years, and Milo Ventigmilia is affecting as a hot-dog-loving young cop who, like the homeless person, stumbles into the hideaway and comes to regret it. The hideaway itself is both a cliché (yet another abandoned factory — there must be an abandoned-factory factory somewhere in Hollywood), and at the same time a triumph of the art of production design and set design; it is, as a “making of” feature on the DVD points out, like something out of M.C. Escher.

This is a notably un-clever and un-ironic movie, and its grim thrills cannot be overestimated. It also has a shockingly weak ending that seems as if it was scripted on the back of an In-N-Out burger wrapper by whoever flipped the burger inside. As an efficient little B movie, though, it works well enough, and I can promise you that you won’t soon forget that doom-laden clanging and the satisfying fate it foretells for one soon-to-be-flattened snake.

RATING 6 / 10
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