By Armond White
Takers has a Brother vibe that only partly has to do with most of its dapper bank robber cast being African American. Co-producing rap artists and stars, Tip “T.I.” Harris and Chris Brown, make vivid use of the crime movie genre’s social significance, which lackadaisical film commentators have mostly ignored. Takers accents the genre’s bonhomie: its exercise of the same working-class frustrations young black artists articulated in hip-hop music and music videos under the influence of ’70s blaxploitation movies. But Takers is not a cultish parody like Machete from Robert Rodriguez. It is—to redeem a police blotter phrase—a Saturday Night Special, excitingly executed.
The story of a mixed (black and white) Los Angeles heist crew is in a grand entertainment tradition: They stage an audacious skyscraper escape then lay low, only to get seduced into a hasty new job by an estranged ex-con colleague (T.I.). The risks taken involve the hazards of trust, sentiment and bravado more than greed, but also reflect class and economic dissatisfaction, going back to the genre’s roots, its honor-testing origins. Takers’ ads mention Michael Mann’s 1995 Heat, but I prefer a richer comparison: The Wild Bunch, for Sam Peckinpah’s vision of the self-destructive way socially maladjusted men embrace outlawry.
John Luessenhop’s direction and Armen Minasian’s editing are closer to Peckinpah’s lucid, aestheticized morality than Mann’s gloss. The spectacle does not overwhelm the personalities, and each man—Idris Elba, Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen, Matt Dillon, Jay Rodriguez, Michael Ealy plus T.I. and Brown—carries at least a sketch of family bonds or masculine empathy. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s participation proves the filmmakers’ serious ambitions, which proceed from critic Robert Warshow’s once-famous thesis “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (1948), which explained: “The gangster is a man of the city… not the real city but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world.” No longer an alienated figure, the gangster outlaw reflecting black urban experience has come to represent a desperate response to the fact of the city’s anonymity and death. That’s also been the essence of serious and braggadocious hip-hop and the tragic late-20th-century sensibility that Peckinpah beautifully realized.
All this is implicit in Takers’ flashy, dangerous lawbreaking. Its hip-hop bunch sustain camaraderie through shared awareness of the city’s implicit anonymity and death. Fans who can distinguish between mania and connoisseurship will appreciate this even in Paul Walker’s manly stride. Materialism means less to the Takers than obligation to family and friends—as in Elba and Dillon’s brother/father subplots that one montage fleetly interweaves. The bunch’s new heist revives antagonism between Ealy and T.I., personified in Zoe Saldana’s switched romantic loyalties. Their sexual and ethical tensions recall how Peckinpah portrayed William Holden and Robert Ryan’s.
Through Luessenhop and the screenwriting team’s connoisseurship and skills, Takers refines a genre that has been hollowed-out by the cold repetitions of such cliché movies as Soderbergh’s Oceans franchise and the cheap ambiguities of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, American Gangsters and Brooklyn’s Finest. Those films are lugubrious product compared to Takers. Even when doing action movie conventions (a dizzying hotel shoot-out with haunting voice-overs), Luessenhop at least does them swiftly.
His light, clear style creates a Testosteronarama: This cast of studly has-beens and romantic wannabes outclasses the pathetic Expendables and are almost as dazzling as RocknRolla. Dillon’s finest performance in years sets the tone of aggrieved morality, defining a man’s aggression as dedication (Ryan in The Wild Bunch was no more moving). And Chris Brown gets a showcase chase scene that is one of action cinema’s all-time greatest. He runs for his life, passing through escalating levels of urban achievement, vaulting through danger, challenging fate. It should define his career like Jim Brown’s 50-yard dash in The Dirty Dozen.
Luessenhop can’t top that climax, but his shift to mournful mode effectively confronts death—Peckinpah’s grave leveler. The pile-up seems overloaded, rather shortchanging the significance of Ghost, T.I.’s duplicitous character—perhaps a pretentious idea yet he’s a figure whose dazzling arrogance deserves better. Better is what Takers scrupulously provides action-movie devotees usually suckered into cheering greed and swagger unrelated to their personal experience. The Brother vibe is epitomized in the image of the crew strutting past an exploding news helicopter. Turning that cliché into an image of multi-racial male bonding makes Takers a true thriller, superior to big-budget action films like Salt and Heat that exploit the urban audience while ignoring it.
Directed by John Luessenhop
Runtime: 107 min.
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