Takers (review)

Economies of Crime

A late-August action movie? I was expecting, naturally, a completely disposable, utterly forgettable bit of formulaic fluff, at best. At worst… well, I could only hope that the on-the-surface-similar Armored, from late last year — and also from Sony’s genre division Screen Gems — wasn’t going to provide a template with its slapdash plotting and all-but-absent characterization.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Takers turned out to be an excellent example of what I am looking for from the latest entry in a well-worn genre. We’ve seen the heist flick too many times to actually expect much that’s radically new — not that that wouldn’t be welcome, of course. I don’t need Citizen Kane from a movie like Takers, but I do want a bit of nuance, a few shades of gray, just a little substance. I ask that a movie like Takers not actively insult my intelligence.

This is how you do it. More like this, please.
Yes, there is much that is clichéd here, from the slow-mo group walk away from the explosion to the celebration with babes and bling, and all following, disappointingly, what had been a very clever bank robbery — smartly conceived, elegantly planned, smoothly and nonviolently pulled off, and featuring an escape the likes of which I’ve never seen on film before. It’s a bumpy start, from the perspective of the moviegoer hoping for something fresh. But soon Takers is slyly setting up a dichotomy that is at once strange, compelling, and so pertinent that it becomes tragic.

For here we have the gang of thieves, nominally led by suave Brit Gordon Jennings (Idris Elba: The Losers, Obsessed) but apparently quite equitably democratic in its harmonious ebony-and-ivory makeup: the other thieves are played by Chris Brown (This Christmas), Hayden Christensen (Jumper, Factory Girl), Michael Ealy (Seven Pounds, Miracle at St. Anna), and Paul Walker (Fast & Furious, Flags of Our Fathers), all of whom are hugely appealing here (which hasn’t always been true of all of them in other roles). They live the good life in Los Angeles, and not only because of their felonies: they invest like businessmen. They also arrange to donate “10 percent to the usual charities” after their latest job. From gorgeous penthouses to expensive suits to fine whiskey and cigars, these guys are gentlemen. (And yes — *sigh* — the women in their lives are nothing but window dressing in the movie, including the sadly wasted Zoe Saldana [The Losers, Death at a Funeral], but from what little we see, these men appear to be gentlemen when it comes to the ladies, too.) They may be criminals, but they’re not villains.

Now, however, they are forced to break one of their hard-and-fast rules — Wait at least a year in between jobs — when a former member of the gang, Ghost (Tip “T.I.” Harris: American Gangster, ATL), who’s just been released from prison, comes to them with a job he learned about in the joint that they must do immediately and cannot refuse. Not out of greed: out of loyalty and fear, because Ghost, who was arrested when he got left behind after a previous job, kept his mouth shut and didn’t rat them out to the cops. But he could still do so at any time…

And so enter LAPD detectives Jack Welles (Matt Dillon: Armored, Nothing But the Truth) and his partner, Eddie Hatcher (Jay Hernandez: Nothing Like the Holidays, Lakeview Terrace), who are on the case of that first bank robbery that opens the film, and now are edging close to unraveling the gang’s new plan. These guys are good, honest, smart investigators: Jack in particular is clever and diligent in how he sneaks up on clues, which is very bad for his family life – he’s living alone in a tiny apartment, having been kicked out by his wife — but, the implication is, very good for the city. Eddie, on the other hand, does not neglect his family, but he’s having a tough time paying the mortgage on his very modest home, not to mention the medical bills for his young son’s kidney disease (“Insurance doesn’t cover shit,” he complains).

A subplot, one that’s deftly woven into the overall story, about Gordon’s drug-addicted sister (Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Spy Game, The Cell), adds another dash of unexpected nuance: criminals have family problems that distress them, too.

It’s never explicitly stated, but the underlying push-and-pull of Takers isn’t about the cat-and-mouse game between the thieves and the cops — that’s the overt fun of the movie, and it is fun. Beneath that, however, is the unspoken question: How can it be that smart, decent, clever cops aren’t living as well as the smart, decent, clever criminals they hunt down? How can it be that the cops are struggling for mere survival, even to the point that it sometimes pushes them to do terrible things they wouldn’t otherwise do? What, in the end, is “honest” and what’s “dishonest” in such an unfair world?

Takers cannot answer that question, and doesn’t intend to. But just asking it — and asking it as it does, in a subtle way that I can’t recall from any other similar films — makes the flick a helluva lot more involving than I could ever have imagined it would be.

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