When it’s done right, there’s nothing wrong with a movie following a formula. Think about this summer’s brilliant Inception. Director Christopher Nolan’s twisting tale about dream thieves purposefully embraced the tried-and-true conventions of a heist movie. You know the drill: A gang of outlaws, each with specialized talents, assembles to tackle the biggest job of their careers. Their leader only reluctantly takes the gig and declares he’s getting out of the business once it’s completed. Their clever plan is explained, and when it unfolds something inevitably goes wrong — though the crooks usually end up getting what they wanted.
When you put it that way, Inception has a predictable plot arc. But that’s because Nolan knew how his story was best served by the genre. He understands just what it is that makes a great heist film great. Meanwhile the makers of the execrable new Takers haven’t got a clue.
Sure, they follow the broad outlines. They’ve seen movies like The Italian Job. In fact, they like that movie so much that they openly rip it off — (an actual line: “Let’s go Italian Job on them”) — by having their gang of thieves seize control of part of the Los Angeles traffic system in order to rob an armored truck, just as the crew led by Mark Wahlberg did. Perhaps Takers intends this as an homage, but it’s done with such lack of style that it comes off as mere lazy storytelling.
The screenplay’s major miscalculation is that we’ll care more about the characters than the mechanics of the central crime itself. There’s an attempt to make the gang more sympathetic, by showing the leader (Idris Elba) caring for a crackhead sister (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and mentioning that they donate 10 percent of their ill-gotten gains to charity. But the rest of the crew (two of whom are played by hip-hop artists Chris Brown and T.I.) come off as nothing more than thugs who won’t hesitate to kill each other, and others, to get what they want. And the police detective obsessed with busting them (Matt Dillon) is such a cardboard cutout of a dozen prior film cops-who-can’t-seem-to-manage-their-personal-lives-because-of-their-deep-dedication-to-the-job that we couldn’t honestly be expected to give much of a damn about him either.
Director John Luessenhop is most interested in glamorizing his criminals with slow-motion, music video-like segments posing them in fancy suits while smoking expensive cigars and living the good life. Or portraying them as super-human tough guys who can plant a bomb in a helicopter and calmly walk away without even so much as glancing back when it detonates just a few dozen feet behind them. (Remember: “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions.”)
The movie’s single biggest sin is that it doesn’t take time to outline the thieves’ plan so that the audience can follow along once it’s put into action. Without that advance explanation, we’re left disoriented when it starts to go wrong. We’re not even sure that it has gone wrong, at least not until they start yelling that they screwed up. All the fun of feeling like we’re participating in the crime is lost. What good is a heist movie without that?