review by Cynthia
30 May 2003
two guys made up their mind: get away,
or go down at the scene.
--Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams (1997)
the morning of 28 February 1997, the LAPD had no idea what they were
in for. Still, according to 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood
Shootout, FX's newest original movie, the cops were ready for
the conflagration that was visited upon them. This even though they
were wholly outgunned by two bank robbers, such that, for 44 minutes
on that sunny Friday morning, the LAPD appeared on live television
in dire straits, trying to figure out how to save the customers and
employees trapped inside.
by Tim Metcalfe and directed by Yves Simoneau, the movie begins with
brief, seemingly intimate introductions to the designated major
players. The cops prepare for their day: following a sleepless night
owing to a loud, smoky party next door, based-on-a-true-guy
Detective Frank McGregor (Michael Madsen) kisses his pregnant wife
goodbye; S.W.A.T. officer Donnie Anderson (Ron Livingston) cleans
his gun and remembers his honorable cop dad; and upright,
compassionate uniform Henry Dee (Mario Van Peebles) prays for
guidance ("Lord, help me to do the right thing out
Frank observes, his work in the Robbery Homicide Division means he's
working with the "best of the best." "When you're a
cop," he notes, "You have to make split second decisions.
It's kind of like being on trial every day."
And oh yes, contrary to popular supposition, cops' lives
aren't much like the movies: unlike the detectives in Heat, L.A.
Confidential, and Dragnet, they're juggling "75
cases all at once." Police work is dangerous but rewarding, you
don't do it for the money, but for some personal and social good.
contrast, the robbers have no good in mind. At all. As the film sets
up these eminently well-intentioned cops, it intercuts shots of the
villains, also preparing for their day. They watch cartoons. They
load up their weapons -- AK-47s, semiautomatic, a few smoke
grenades, and other explosives. They don Kevlar vests, pants, and
headgear (worn under black ski masks), and bring along over 2,600
rounds of ammunition, as will be counted up by crime scene
investigators after the fact. Frank fills in some of the details on
these guys as they sweat and huff-and-puff in their apartment: they
come to this event with something of a reputation. Nicknamed the
High Incident Bandits, they were previously known for their
"takeover style" -- they'd walk into a bank heavily armed,
grab up the money, and escape quickly. According to Frank, they'd
already stolen some $2 million by the time they hit the Van Nuys
Bank of America.
according to Frank, "These guys were media junkies. They'd be
robbing banks in the morning and watching themselves on TV in the
afternoon." This seems important to know, though none of the
cops are inclined to discuss details of the perpetrators' history or
likely behaviors once the shooting starts (Frank does mention to one
cop on the scene that "They're gonna come out heavy").
Instead, they scramble, mostly in slow motion, in order to showcase
the photogenic mayhem.
apart from Frank's occasional commentary, 44 Minutes spends
precious little time contemplating the robbers' backgrounds or
motives. They appear here as evil embodied -- hulking, sweating,
bellowing at one another. Based on the real life robbers -- Larry
Eugene Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu -- these fictionalized
monsters are abject, nameless objects (though they are played with
some gusto by Andrew Bryniarski and Oleg Taktarov). Fully armed,
they sit in their car in the bank's parking lot, waiting for the
armored truck that is their original target (the truck never shows
up, so they change plans, seemingly on a whim: "Do the
bank!"). As they wait, sweating in the sun, the Larry character
teases the Emil character about his Romanian background, to which
the Emil character responds, vehemently, "I'm an American. I
like the Corvettes and the Mexican girls."
this gruntish exchange suggests, the robbers look cruder and meaner
by the second. By the time they emerge from the car and enter the
bank, they are wholly monstrified. And the film leaves them this
way, dreadful, bulky cutouts, and focuses instead on the cops' as
they attempt to deal with the assault. This approach omits details
and ambiguities related to the origins or ramifications of this
some of the facts emerge in the fiction: where the villains are
vastly over-prepared, the cops come sorely under-prepared, despite
their numbers (some 200 arrive at the scene). They come without
enough firepower, without knowledge of how many bandits are in the
bank, without enough guns. The legal and cultural fallout of the
crime had to do with just how much firepower the cops should be
carrying, if outlaws find it so easy to purchase AK-47s at gun
shows. The cops do send a couple of uniforms go to a nearby gun
store to purchase extra firepower, but arrive back on the scene too
late, as the purchase is authorized quite late during the course of
media trucks and choppers were on the scene almost immediately, such
that the siege appeared on live TV almost in its entirety. This in
itself is something of an issue -- as the robbers start shooting at
one news helicopter and as the cops appear unable to contain
onlookers (some hit by the robbers' gunfire, though the day ends
with only the robbers dying) or, more interestingly, reporters.
Indeed, journalists start raising questions on the spot, by
wondering how the cops could come so ill-equipped and comparing the
shootout to the excessive explosiveness of Heat, the very
film to which Frank has preemptively referred in his opening
point appears to be that the "real" thing is much less
readable and much less predictable than the Hollywood version.
Except that this film is caught between; it's part emulating
big-budget cop movies, and part emulating the grimmest sort of
"reality TV." Michael Mann's film offered legible slow
motion, grandly choreographed chaos. The events of 28 February 1997
were brutal and barely comprehensible in the unnerving footage from
that day. Simoneau and director of photography David Franco conjure
a middling representation: bullets fly windows burst into a million
shards; bank employees and customers' reaction shots emphasize their
sense of terror; traffic backs up; a neighbor steps onto his balcony
to videotape the events; and cops dash about, set up a temporary HQ
in a nearby store, and bark orders over their radios.
bedlam seems appropriate, but the film neatens it up with narrative,
as it must. To this end, it offers "characters" (or
rather, figures you see more than once) with whom you might
identify: the dog-walking girl who calls in the robbery on her cell
phone appears on camera several times before she does so; Henry (who
has earlier tried to save a gang-leaning kid by showing him crime
scene photos and buying him a burrito) is badly wounded and bleeding
nearly to death in the parking lot, as his female partner holds back
tears and tells him to "Hold on!"; Frank calls wifey to
tell her he's all right, then dashes into the fray to commandeer a
cop car and pick up Henry.
cops are heroic (and no doubt, they were at the time). As Frank
offers by way of resolution: "In 44 minutes of sheer terror,
not a single officer ran away. I think that means something."
The movie gives you a little nudge as to what that meaning might be:
this was an incident that, after the Rodney King and OJ trials,
restored some public trust in the LAPD. A coda shows grateful women
bringing cookies to their local station and children holding up
"We [HEART] LAPD" banners.
nice as this outcome seems, it leaves out some (brief) controversy
concerning the shootout, not only over the outgunning, but also over
the fact that, after Phillips shot himself, the cops shot down and
left Matasareanu to bleed to death over some 30 minutes, not calling
an ambulance because (depending on whom you read) their focus was on
civilians who were less severely wounded, and they were unsure that
the gunman wasn't booby-trapped. This led to a lawsuit filed on
behalf of his children. However you feel about this turn of events,
leaving it out completely is only one of many instances where 44
Minutes simplifies rather than complicates the horrors of that
day in North Hollywood.