MOVIE REVIEW: Takers
Everybody loves crime drama, cops and robbers and bank heists featured in Hollywood films. Takers is yet another film in the same genre as the Ocean’s films and Heat (1995) that takes the audience on a bullet riddled joy ride from the criminals’ perspective. These films are notorious for recruiting big names to fill out the cast and Takers is no exception. Names like Paul Walker and Matt Dillon are the kind of actors one all but expects to appear in these types of films, but the addition of popular rappers T.I. and Chris Brown is a curious choice at first glance. I believe a short review of rap and Hollywood is necessary to completely understand.
History has not developed a very robust body of work to truly define the ever expanding role that Hollywood feature films play in the lives of rappers, but there is evidence of life imitating art and vice-versa for the men of hip hop and movies. The first tragic example of this was the career that wasn’t in Tupac Shakur. Here was a very young and successful individual that gained notoriety in taking “gangsta rap” to the next level and reaffirmed his “don’t mess with me” image in films like Juice (1992). Appearing in Hollywood features expanded the man’s brand by increasing his exposure to consumers outside his ethnic target audience. Shakur got involved with some dubious individuals and questionable skirmishes with law enforcement and one could easily make the argument that his artistic absorption into the “thug life” overruled every other personal priority and perhaps got the young man killed.
Fast forward to 2010 and both rappers starring in Takers find themselves in trouble with the law: Chris Brown for beating up Rihanna and T.I. (Clifford Harris Jr.) for purchasing a whole lot of machine guns and silencers. Perhaps he just wanted to role play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2? I am not certain who the PR reps for either rapper are, but I am not sold on both appearing in a violent film depicting violent characters as the best way to go about rehabilitating one’s image. But perhaps that’s not the point and maintaining one’s “street-cred” and “hard” persona in a shamelessly unapologetic way is the means by which they continue to cash in mega-bank, increase their popularity and in a very round-about way, rehab their image as a result. At first, I thought the appearance of these two in Takers was part of a well scripted strategy to clean up both of these men to around the same level as LL Cool J and Will Smith (both of whom are by far superior actors than rappers on their best day). J and Smith, bank on their hip hop appeal in a kid-friendly/family-oriented kind of way, whereas Brown and T.I. are just knuckleheads. In the end it’s all about the money and the fact that there’s no such thing as bad press, even for prima donnas with sociopathic tendencies. Toss in the fact that T.I. and Chris Brown were top-credited as producers for this film and everything starts to make sense as a well thought out self promotion. So what if I’m a thug? I’m going to make a ton of cash I don’t deserve, you’re going to give it to me and you’re going to love doing it!
As for the film itself, I was very surprised at the estimated budget for this project; listed at a paltry $20 million. The production value of Takers is very high as the quality of the stunt work, car chases and gunplay (not to mention the big names in the cast) do not reflect such a very low investment. Production managers Jennifer Blair and Glenn S. Gainor are to be credited for stretching their limited dollars beyond reasonable boundaries. I’m assuming that the cast signed on for huge money on the back end of each of their contracts because if this film was indeed made for the listed amount, then no actor got any money up front. I just don’t see how it’s possible, so much so, that I’m calling schenanigans right now and that $20 million estimate is a stone-faced lie!
The plot of Takers is simple and derivative, but is noteworthy for featuring black actors as both the main characters that drive the story forward and characters that represent forms of authority on both sides of the law. This is not prototypical of crime films which traditionally feature successful white cops pursuing unsuccessful black criminals. What adds another level to this anti-stereotype is the stark contrast in status that all the criminals have in comparison with the cops that investigate them. The criminals are rich, live in posh apartment buildings, drive expensive cars, drink the finest alcohol and have a litany of supermodels at their beck and call. The cops have martial problems, drive Ford sedans and definitely qualify as the low end of the middle class. In these cynical times, no good deed goes unpunished.
I also found it interesting how a film of such base magnitude required a team of four writers to compose: Peter Allen, Gabriel Casseus, Avery Duff and director John Luessenhop. Anyone with a BA in English that has seen the crime films of the past 20 years could have written this script, but the authenticity of ethnic dialogue is an entirely different kind of flying. Gabriel Casseus was the man primarily responsible for this beyond the fact that he is black and more so due to his acting experience in TV and film projects such as 24, CSI, Black Hawk Down, and The Practice. I tend to get into the routine of chastising any writing efforts for film productions that do not blow my mind in terms of originality, so I will not go out of my way to discredit the writing team here. The story and dialogue are good enough to be entertaining without revealing any glaring gaps in plot or gross violations of continuity. Character development and surprising twists are in short supply, but are not aggregious enough to walk out on the film. Takers is a solid, yet formulaic adventure that’s full of popcorn, but will have you notice the familiarity of the taste.
When it comes to the performances, the two men that do any significant lifting at all are Idris Elba as Gordon Jennings and Michael Ealy as Jake Attica. Mr. Elba plays the alpha male of the criminal pack and rightly so because he displays elite confidence and determination that demands respect. Plus, his English accent (which automatically elevates status) doesn’t hurt much either. Mr. Ealy provides the much needed emotional tether to this tale as he attempts to make a relationship with Rachel (Zoe Saldana – in a throw-away role) work despite his dangerous lifestyle. Although there is a brotherly kinship amongst the Takers, it is Ealy whom the audience believes most as he portrays genuine caring in all his mannerism and demeanor. You won’t see an acting level that elevates beyond Fast and Furious from Paul Walker as he is simply meant to be pretty on the screen. Hayden Christensen has a neat little action sequence all to himself which is impressive, but his character is simply not given enough screen time to be unique. As for the rappers, let’s just say that T.I.’s color commentary during the heavy action sequences was very annoying and trying to sell Chris Brown as a free runner was comical. Perhaps the writers should have worked in their rapping talent as a means of distinguishing their characters from the rest?
This film takes many cues from the Ocean films and it is a shame that this hip hop rendition doesn’t quite measure up. Certainly a few things could have been addressed with the same cast and budget to have improved the final product such as finding a more unique method for the criminals’ heists or dedicating more time to develop character. Few films are able to do all of the above in the crime genre from both sides of the law in an effective and satisfying way. Heat succeeded, but suffered from pacing issues and a very long runtime. Instead of sampling from Ocean’s and American Gangster, this film would have been better served finding its own voice. As a result, Takers never cracks the modestly amusing barrier, leaving the audience feeling . . . taken.