Judge Ike Oden's last heist involved a trip to McDonald's and a hell of a lot of Vaseline. Don't ask.
Everyone's after something.
At the end of every year, I look forward to hearing "Top Ten Movies Of The Year" lists. From heavy hitting critics like Roger Ebert to fan-favorite filmmakers like Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz), I'll spend countless hours combing the internet to find the favorite movies of all my favorite writers, directors, musicians, and media pundits.
Among this rogue's gallery of opinions, no list sticks out more than that of EW columnist (and best selling novelist) Stephen King (Maximum Overdrive). Say what you will about the man's ability to craft a story, you're not likely to find a more eclectically influenced pop culture writer.
No more evidence is needed than his placement of Takers, a hip hop flavored heist movie met with universally mediocre reviews, in his top five films of the year. Positioned comfortably between Kick-Ass and The Social Network, he calls it a "satisfyingly complex cops-'n'-robbers movie" with "characters that feel real."
Okay, Stephen King, I'm listening. Now, is Takers the underrated gem you perceive it to be or did you just not see that many movies this year?
Facts of the Case
After a group of bank robbers pull off the biggest heist of their careers, they retreat into the solitude of their private lives. Team leader Cozier (Idris Elba, The Losers) reconnects with his recovering addict sister (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, City of Ember). Jake (Michael Ealy, Seven Pounds) runs a club with brother Jesse (Chris Brown, Step Up), who himself plans to marry long-time girlfriend Lilly (Zoe Saldana, Avatar). John (Paul Walker, Fast and Furious) hooks up with former team member Ghost (Tip "T.I. Harris, American Gangster).
Following a stint in prison, Ghost approaches John with plans for a fail-proof armored truck heist. The gang is hesitant, except for team tactician A.J. (Hayden Christensen, Jumper), who sees the potential for a perfect crime if they can pull it off before the seven day deadline hits. With the clock ticking, the group goes to work, juggling personal lives and old vendettas.
As far as heist thrillers go, Takers is as by-the-numbers as they come. Within the first fifteen minutes, you'll have a pretty good idea of the trajectory the plotline will take—the elaborate plan will go wrong, shots will be fired, characters will be betrayed and tragedy will strike. If you're looking for more innovation in your heist movie, go watch Inception again. If you're in the mood for a reasonably well-made cops-and-robbers movie, Takers will make for 107 minutes of well-paced, semi-intelligent fun.
Part of the credit has to go to co-writer/director John Luessenhop (Lockdown), who approaches the film in a neon saturated, cinema verite style that sometimes feels like Michael Mann-lite, but generally works in the film's favor. The director wisely exhibits an understanding that audiences are most interested in the build-up and execution of the heists themselves, and it's during these sequences the film works best.
The action never disappoints, mixing run-and-gun unpredictability with a heavy emphasis on setting, using Los Angeles and urban terrain as an unpredictable character in and of itself. Open spaces, windows, and heights layer tension with the gunplay and chases that ensue.
Though the script is pedestrian and the acting is inconsistent, the sense of environment in juxtaposition with action and characters show that Luessenhop is coming at the material from a lot of different angles. In the process, he creates oodles of suspense even though the audience will almost always know what will happen next. Like the best directors, Luessenhop crafts something out of nothing, and exhibits a talent to watch in the coming years.
Unfortunately, Luessenhop's innovation cannot save a mediocre script. Ensemble movies are especially tricky narrative beasts, and the screenplay just doesn't balance the characters as well as it should. I forgot Hayden Christensen was even in the movie for about 20 minutes, and it isn't because he's bad, but because his character is given nothing to do outside of heist activities. Where I get to know Walker, Elba, and Brown's characters pretty well, Christensen is just sort of the frat-boy guy. Meanwhile, Matt Dillon's cop drama plays out snoozingly, and all I'm thinking is that I could be watching Christensen beat up more Russian mobsters with a broomstick (c'mon Luessenhop, gimmee that movie!).
This character imbalance and a choppy running time causes the film to stop just short of developing its characters beyond one or two dimensions, leaving the film's cast to fill in the gaps to varying degrees of success.
Idris Elba carries the film as Cozier, giving his soft spoken hood added dimensions that his dialogue just doesn't convey. Paul Walker is at his best here, playing to the physical strengths of his wooden action star persona as Cozier's right hand man. Matt Dillon plays his "a-hole" persona on auto-pilot here, but creates some real chemistry with Hernandez, who is typically solid. While his screen time feels very limited, Hayden Christensen plays his character with a lot of intensity, proving himself capable and hogging all the "action star" moments of the film (though more character development certainly could've added some extra heft to these scenes).
On the less savory side of the film's thespian trappings, Zoe Saldana is hugely wasted as Lily, barely garnering ten minutes of screen time. When she is around, she's trying to create romantic sparks with Chris Brown, which seems about as hard as killing a great white shark with a paper clip. Together, Chris Brown and his fellow hip-hop star Tip Harris make a great case for keeping rap artists out of high profile movies. These guys have all the acting chops of WWE wrestlers, and while they seem to be trying, they mutually waver between underplaying their character to the point of blandness (Chris Brown, I'm looking at you) or chewing scenery like a would-be Gary Oldman (Tip, that's your cue). Chris Brown's inability to perform opposite anyone or anything drags poor Micheal Ealy's performance down with him (he fares well in his solo, parkour driven chase scenes). Tip, on the other hand, makes for the single lamest, one-dimensional gangsta villain I've ever seen. Seriously guys—either take some serious acting lessons or stop showing up in movies. You're making 50 Cent look like Daniel Day Lewis in comparison.
Shot on a Panavision Genesis HD, Takers' intentionally rough style automatically renders the video tough to criticize. The image suffers from some minor pixel flourishes, especially in early scenes, but these flaws can be chalked up to cinematography choices, rather than a bad transfer. Takers might be a little rough around the edges for anyone looking for a purely slick action film, but Sony's transfer is faithful to the film's aesthetic and looks pretty great in the process with strong colors and a very sharp image overall.
The 5.1 audio mix is equally solid, sporting directional effects in action scenes (lots of zinging gunshots and encompassing explosions) while balancing dialogue levels and channeling a pulsing, Russian ballet influenced rock score (think Danny Elfman's work on Wanted strung through the tone of The Godfather). I wouldn't call it a demo disc, but I would call it quite satisfying.
Standard DVD owners should be used to getting the screw job from the studios when it comes to extras in today's day and age. Takers refuses to buck the trend, offering up a casual, informative audio commentary track with the director Luessenhop, producer Will Packer, and star T.I. Also included is a music video ("Yeah, Ya Know (Takers)" by T.I.). That's it. Move along.
The film's shortcomings aren't enough to detract from the fun to be had with Takers. It certainly shouldn't make anyone's "Best Of" list this year, I don't care if they wrote The Dark Tower series. For the rest of us, it's a fun movie for a lazy afternoon, matinee fare at best. That's okay, though. I like matinees.
Consider me took. Not guilty.
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