Sunday, August 29, 2010


I went into Takers with my brain clenched. I was expecting it to be terrible. I considered the casting of T.I., Chris Brown, Paul Walker and even Idris Elba to be warning signs. I've seen former castmembers of The Wire popping up in hip-hop videos lately, and Elba's done some other movies aimed at urban blacks—he co-starred with BeyoncĂ© in 2009's Obsessed, remember, and he did a Tyler Perry movie, Daddy's Little Girls, too. So I was expecting it to be a 90-minute version of one of those hip-hop videos that finds the rappers and their friends and hangers-on reshooting one of their favorite gangster movies—an imitation of an imitation.

Well, Takers is much better than that. It's not original—it's a genre picture, a heist movie. Genre movies have rules, and Takers only breaks one, and when that surprise comes, it's a solid choice on the filmmakers' part.

There are two basic heist-movie stories, the "one last job" story and the "job too big to pass up" story. Takers is the latter, with some twists thrown in. Elba plays the leader of a five-man, high-end heist team; they pull off a Heat-style bank robbery as the movie begins, getting away by hijacking a news helicopter. Then they're contacted by T.I., the sixth member of the crew, who went to prison following a 2004 job. He comes out early, and returns offering an even bigger job than the one we just saw them complete, albeit on a rush schedule. It's an armored car robbery, not unlike the one in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, a fact that's explicitly acknowledged in dialogue. There's about 30 seconds of "it's too quick...can we trust him?" dialogue within the group, before they're all in. As you knew they would be, 'cause otherwise there's no movie.

Meanwhile, there's a parallel narrative about the obsessed detective, played by Matt Dillon, who's tracking whoever was behind the movie-opening bank job. That's all pretty much straight out of Heat, except Dillon doesn't shout as much as Al Pacino. (In fact, he delivers most of his dialogue in a sullen mutter.) And while that story's not as interesting as the criminals' preparations for their big job, it's handled better than many writers would have done. Dialogue between Dillon and his partner is expository but not clunky. There are some decent twists along the way, too.

What I like best about heist movies is the part where the team does the actual physical work of preparing—dressing up like city workers and crawling through the sewers to lay charges, jackhammering through the floor of the building next door to the one they're going to rob, tapping into the alarm system and stealing the passcodes, that stuff. Takers does that stuff well. Some of the things it doesn't do well, like showing us how all the members of the crew save one get away from the second-act climax, or doing more to establish the power of a love triangle (it doesn't help that two-thirds of the characters involved in said triangle are given almost no motivation...not just to be together, but to exist at all), are forgivable in my eyes because the important stuff is handled efficiently and without showiness. The filmmakers also keep the thing I was most worried about having to endure—music video-style passages where the thieves stand (or sit) around looking cool, drinking expensive liquor with anonymous and underdressed women draped over them—to a relative minimum. Oh, and in general the movie is very well shot and edited—it's digital, but since it takes place in 2010, that's not a mood-shattering distraction the way it was in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, set in the 1930s but seemingly filmed on a Flip video camera.

Ultimately, to me, the most interesting character in the entire movie is played by, of all people, Paul Walker. He's an underrated actor, because he doesn't ever seem to be working very hard, and he allows everyone else in a scene to out-shout him, when they're not physically throwing him around or otherwise making the viewer forget he's there at all. Put him next to a cartoon character like Vin Diesel in the first and fourth Fast & the Furious movies, and he comes off like a paperweight. Put him next to Jessica Alba and her absurdly undersized bikini, in Into the Blue, and his presence is once again an afterthought. Here, he plays Idris Elba's #2 man, and while T.I. and Chris Brown and Hayden Christensen (playing his latest in a long line of smirking d-bags, this time with the addition of a silly hat and paint-on tattoos) are making spectacles of themselves, he hangs in the background and is silently competent. To paraphrase Mark Wahlberg's character in The Departed, he's the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy. And sure enough, when the movie reaches its final confrontation, it's Walker who emerges unscathed and...well, I'll let you go see it for yourself.

Like I said, Takers is a heist movie. Heist movies, like all genre movies, have rules, and this one plays by them, until it doesn't. It also nods to its predecessors in various ways, big and small, obvious (and acknowledged) and not. If I had to compare it to anything, I'd compare it to Heat, but without the pretentiousness that makes stretches of that movie a slog. Heat wants to be grand opera; Takers wants to be exactly what it is—a good genre movie, worth your ticket and your time if you're a fan of the genre. Period.

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