44 MINUTES – DVD review

“Ninety per cent of cops go through their entire career without ever firing their gun.” –Michael Madsen, “44 Minutes”

And then there are those few times when they do draw their weapons, and it’s frightening as hell. On Friday, February 28, 1997, two armed bandits carrying AK-47 machine guns and outfitted in complete body armor attempted to hold up the North Hollywood branch of the Bank America in Southern California. Before they could escape, they were surrounded by some fifty Los Angeles police officers armed largely with pistols and other small arms. Over 1500 rounds were fired, twelve officers and eight civilians were wounded, and the bandits were foiled only after the S.W.A.T. team finally arrived. The gunfight lasted forty-four minutes and was covered live by television and radio. It has been described as “one of the longest gun battles in urban warfare history.” One of the gunmen was killed, but, miraculously, none of the police or civilians were lost. Clearly outgunned, the police fought courageously and the event was dubbed “The day willpower beat firepower.”

Sensing the potential for making a movie about the occurrence, Fox Film Corporation produced this dramatization of the skirmish for their FX television network. Although the resultant film lacks the characterizations and tension required of a good theatrical release, 2003’s “44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-out” is a surprisingly effective TV movie.

Among the film’s strongest assets are its location shots, its real-time gun battle, and its cast. The locations used were the streets and Bank of America branch where the actual shoot-out took place. And the gun battle itself takes up the film’s last forty-four minutes, the actual time of the fighting.

The cast is lead by Michael Madsen, who, probably because of his bearish appearance, is generally typecast as a tough guy, sometimes good, as here, sometimes bad. I’ve made no secret about my liking him in any part; I think he’s one of the most undervalued actors in Hollywood. In this instance, he plays Detective Frank McGregor, who works out of the L.A. Homicide and Robbery Division (think “Dragnet,” “Heat,” or “L.A. Confidential“). His character is established at the beginning of the picture when we see him at home one night trying to get some rest for himself and his pregnant wife while a wild, noisy party is going on next door. Frank goes over and politely asks them to turn down their music. They ignore him, so he returns a moment later with a pair of cable shears and cuts their main power supply. He also carries a cannon-sized revolver that would make Dirty Harry proud, but he hesitates to use it on his neighbors.

Others in the cast include Ron Livingston as Donnie Anderson, a S.W.A.T. team member who’s having a really off day; Mario Van Peebles as Henry, a noble and dedicated uniformed officer whose brief appearance leads to the most stirring episode in the story; Gunner Bryniarski and Oleg Taktarov as the “High Incidence Bandits,” the guys responsible for the string of bank robberies and the killing of a guard that precedes this incident; plus Ray Baker, Douglas Spain, and others in supporting roles.

Unfortunately, none of the characters, Madsen’s included, is developed well enough for us to care much about them. The filmmakers knew they couldn’t sustain even so short a film as this eighty-five minute one with only the single gunfight at its core, so they had to invent new ways to supplement the action. The two major additions were back stories on a number of the participants and a semidocumentary style. But by trying to get behind the personalities of maybe half a dozen different characters, they do little justice to any of them. Then, by interrupting the action every few minutes for mock documentary-type interviews with the participants, the tension that was building is further broken up and reduced. The consequence of these intrusions is that even during the actual shoot-out, the film appears to be jerky, sometimes halting, and abrupt. Director Yves Simoneau’s pacing, which moves along smoothly only for minutes at a time, is sabotaged by Tim Metcalf’s script, which tries too hard to do everything at once and winds up seeming helter-skelter.

Apart from the interview interruptions, one cannot fault the way the actual shoot-out is handled in the film, although that doesn’t make it any the less frustrating, real or not. Two bandits against fifty or more cops should have been a cakewalk for the police, but because of the inefficiency of the system, it wasn’t. For one thing, even though the police were instructed to aim for the bandits’ heads, the only part of them that was not protected by armor, and even thought the bandits were completely in the open, not a single policeman in forty-four minutes could hit either of them in a vulnerable area. Despite what we usually see in the movies, this points out the inaccuracy of handguns at anything but very close range. Yet you’d have thought that somebody among the officers present would have had the foresight to call in a single sharpshooter with a high-powered rifle and a telescopic lens. What’s more, when the bandits finally try to effect an escape, they do so in a slow-moving automobile, yet none of the police think to shoot their tires. Seems odd, but apparently that’s the way it really happened.

It’s also hard to believe that the bandits were as dumb as they are portrayed here. You’d only expect to see such idiots in fictional movies. Think about it: These guys walked into a bank in broad daylight wearing full body armor and wielding machine guns, and they didn’t expect to be noticed? Then, after finding the bank surrounded by police, they go charging into the parking lot, where they remain for most of the duration of the battle spraying bullets in all directions and without once thinking of taking a hostage with them? The movie does not suggest they were high on any drugs, only stupid. If this hadn’t all really happened, we’d say “Only in the movies!”

Anyway, it’s hard to complain about the plot of a story that really occurred the way the movie depicts it. But the execution of the story’s action could have been less cluttered. The movie does demonstrate the bravery of the Los Angeles Police Department, but it also shows their ineffectiveness, and, worse, it shows that exciting events in real life don’t always translate well into movie dramas when there isn’t enough personal involvement described.

One gun battle does not a great movie make, which is why, I suppose, the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, represented in so many Hollywood Westerns, was always accompanied on film by long expositions of its participants. Perhaps by concentrating on the Madsen character alone, “44 Minutes” would have been a tighter, more intense experience; I don’t know. What we have is good enough for a television broadcast, but maybe not enough for anything but a rental on DVD.

I don’t know how the picture was presented on television, but on DVD it measures a 1.74:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio, and because it’s from Fox it looks pretty good. There is a bit of blurriness to the image, some overly dark areas, and some grittiness even at the best of times. Indoor colors are not always entirely natural, sometimes leaning to purplish faces; and there’s a degree of intentional grain in the pseudo-documentary interviews. Overall, though, not bad.

The gunfire and police sirens are the main things one notices about the surround sound. Otherwise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics are clean and wide, if not always impressively so. Bass seems limited most of the time, but when it does show up, it makes its presence felt. Individual gunshots are either loud and dynamic or soft and muted, even when they appear to be coming from the same distance. It’s an odd circumstance.

The disc’s major bonus item is a twenty-one minute featurette, “Behind the Scenes of 44 Minutes.” It includes commentary from the cast and crew and is quite straightforward in its account of the filmmaking. “Fox Flix” offer up trailers for three other Fox titles on DVD, and there are twenty-eight scene selections. English is the only spoken language choice, but there subtitles in English and Spanish.

Parting Shots:
Ron Livingston’s character, Officer Donnie Anderson, tells us at the conclusion of the movie, “We generally are supposed to have the firepower. They had the firepower that day. We had the willpower. But you know what? I’ll take the willpower over the firepower any day.”

As a result of the shoot-out, “L.A.P.D. officers now have access to M-16 machine guns when on patrol in the field.” All’s well that ends well. It’s not a great movie, but it gets its point across with a deadly earnest efficiency.