Friday, September 3, 2010

Takers: Badly Taken

Takers (2010) • View trailer for Takers
Three stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, and quite generously, for profanity, fleeting nudity and truly insane levels of gunfire
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.03.10

Buy DVD: Takers • Buy Blu-Ray: Takers [Blu-ray]

Director John Luessenhop has a nifty little B-thriller here. 

Too bad he doesn't want anybody to enjoy it. 

That's the only conclusion to be drawn from Luessenhop's pervasive and obnoxious hand-held camerawork: not only vertigo-inducing but a serious impediment to appreciating the stuntwork and action sequences in his film's frantic third act. 

One sizzling foot-chase boasts the breathtaking intensity and hell-for-leather jumps and tumbles of the memorable "free-running" pursuit that opened Casino Royale, and this one covers considerable territory in downtown city pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Alas, it's impossible to appreciate  and therefore merely tiresome  because it appears as if Luessenhop and cinematographer Michael Barrett "filmed" the entire sequence by running after their two stars, tossing the camera back and forth between them, and hoping for the best. 

We can thank cinema-verite documentaries and low-budget horror flicks for bringing this irritating technique to the attention of hack directors who now believe that it's the epitome of slick: It ain't, and it's time this stylistic hiccup was retired. Without honors. 

When he's not succumbing to such self-indulgent nonsense, Luessenhop orchestrates a fairly taut heist thriller, working from a high-octane script he co-authored with Peter Allen, Gabriel Casseus and Avery Duff. It feels a bit like 2003's remake of The Italian Job on steroids, laced with a soupon of the Vegas-style cool from Ocean's 11

In other words, the de facto villains are much more engaging than the overmatched Forces of Good trying to bring them down. 

Loyalty to a former colleague, or common sense? Faced with the
offer of embracing another high-stakes heist very quickly after their
previous job, our suave anti-heroes -- from left, John (Paul Walker),
Jesse (Chris Brown), Jake (Michael Ealy), A.J. (Hayden Christensen)
and Gordon (Idris Elba) -- weigh the pros and cons of getting
involved. Alas, they'll choose badly...
Longtime friends Gordon Betts (Idris Elba), John Rahway (Paul Walker), A.J. (Hayden Christensen) and the Attica brothers, Jake (Michael Ealy) and Jesse (Chris Brown), enjoy an extravagant lifestyle filled with hot cars, hotter women and plenty o' cash. They finance this largess with meticulously plotted and well-coordinated bank robberies: no more than one per year, will no clues left behind. 

Indeed, law enforcement has treated all previous jobs as one-offs, and isn't even remotely aware of the existence of these serial criminals. 
The most recent heist opens the film; it goes like clockwork but gets under the skin of LAPD detective Jack Welles (Matt Dillon), who obsesses over a mock farewell one of the masked criminals aimed at a bank security camera. Jack's partner and best friend, Eddie Hatcher (Jay Hernandez), is sympathetic but pragmatic: They ain't got no leads to track down. 

Jack simmers. 

So do Gordon and John, after a surprise visit from Ghost (T.I. "Tip" Harris), a former partner who was wounded and caught back in 2004, served his time and has just hit the street. Ghost did his part; he kept his mouth shut and didn't rat out his buddies. Gordon and the others, faithfully honorable, have kept Ghost's portion of the stolen cash safe during the intervening years. 

But Ghost is irritated by the lost time and lost opportunity; he's also none too pleased that his former lover, Rachel (Zoe Saldana), has hooked up with Jake. Wanting a reward for good behavior, Ghost proposes a fresh high-stakes caper. 

Ghost has the details worked out to a T: no surprise from our point of view, because we've already seen him meet with some violent Russian gangsters before renewing old acquaintances. We suspect the worst of Ghost; Gordon and the others, wanting bygones to be bygones, hope for the best. 

Nothing good can come of this, if only because our suave baddies are breaking their successful pattern by getting involved with another caper less than a week after the previous one. 

The success of the heist formula depends on our ability to sympathize with the central anti-heroes, and that's a function of acting chops and good character depth. Much of that works reasonably well here. 

Gordon has an older sister, Naomi (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), in rehab; she's within days of her release, and looking forward to "going home." Elba, an exceptional actor, shows Gordon's genuine pain here: Clearly, he has heard this story before, but must go through the motions with Naomi, if only to help her believe that she can stay off the drugs this time. It's a strong sibling dynamic, and we can't help being drawn into their relationship. 

The same is true of the strong bond between Jake and Jesse. The former occasionally chafes, as a good older brother should, over whether he's done the right thing by dragging Jesse into this dangerous lifestyle. The best part, though, is that Ealy and Brown feel like brothers, just as Elba and Jean-Baptiste feel like brother and sister. 

Walker's John, in contrast, is little more than a stereotype: a good-looking go-to guy who gets things done. He's stoic and capable in the manner of Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger, in their prime: fun to watch, but with little emotional resonance. 

Christensen's A.J. is no more than a cipher; we learn absolutely nothing about him, except that all the others seem to really like him. This is a wasted opportunity; Christensen could have dug into this guy, had the script given him something to do. 

Harris' Ghost is flat-out scary: quiet, sinister and absolutely not to be messed with. Harris radiates menace without even trying, and he's too good at it. I can't imagine why guys as savvy as Gordon and John wouldn't take one look at Ghost and then snuff him as quickly as possible. 

As for the good guys, Dillon has the world-weary routine down pat, and of course Jack is failing as a divorced father. We wince during one sequence, supposedly his day out with his young daughter (Isa Briones), as he allows the case to interfere. Granted, such material is a total cliche at this point, but it still works. Briones plays this scene well, and the disappointment in her eyes is heartbreaking. 

Hernandez is the easygoing, laid-back yin to Dillon's irritable, uptight yang; they make good partners. And Hernandez's Eddie has his own issues, which eventually emerge as a credible  if overly melodramatic  subplot. 

Saldana still looks gorgeous, and that's about all this film requires of her. She probably wasn't on the set for more than a day. 

Everything builds to the explosive finale expected of such flicks, although the chaotic gunfire gets just plain silly, as does this film's adherence to the "family-friendly" (!) PG-13 rating. The Russian gangsters show up with automatic weapons that can drill holes through hotel walls, and yet the fusillade of gunfire somehow doesn't slice our heroes into bloody body parts. That's rather dumb. 

For the most part, though, the proper elements are in place; that makes Luessenhop's stylistic twitches and herky-jerky camerawork all the more irritating. One rarely sees a director so meticulously squander the potential of his own film. 

This is lack of judgment and experience, pure and simple. Takers is only Luessenhop's second film, and he waited a full decade after debuting with 2000's Lockdown. He hasn't yet learned how to get out of his own way: how to trust his actors, how to let his film serve the story, rather than the other way around. 

I'd say Luessenhop shows promise, but at this rate he's not likely to learn quickly enough for us to care.

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