By the time Naomi (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) shows up in Takers, it’s very clear this is a boys’ movie. Her brother Gordon (Idris Elba) works with crew of thieves, and they’ve spent the previous hour or so showing you just how very efficient, cocky, and well dressed they are. How they plan their jobs to the last millimeter of cable needed and how much fun they have smoking cigars and counting their money and toasting themselves on rooftops. And, of course, how much they love their very cool cars, their classic Porsches, their Cadillacs, and their Range Rovers.
Naomi doesn’t have a car. She smokes cigarettes to their nubs and she picks at her hair, embarrassed when Gordon—in Dolce & Gabanna—tells her she looks fine. She’s at rehab, apparently not her fist trip, and she means to hold him to a promise, that he’ll take her home when she gets out in a week. Not just home to his penthouse apartment in L.A., but back to London, where she last felt “right.” Now, in America, she’s feeling all wrong. Whining and smiling, she repeatedly blames her sad state on her brother’s multiple business concerns—and he feels predictably guilty.
That’s not to say that Takers spends more than a few minutes on this smidgen of Gordon’s background—for that is exactly what Naomi is, a smidgen (a minor tragedy in itself, given Jean-Baptiste’s considerable skills and all the time she’s not on screen here). For Gordon, she’s also a weakness, a distraction that will come back and bite him when he’s involved in a very intricate Last Job. Even if Gordon and his team think they’ve prepared for all contingencies, they have not, because they’re in a boys’ movie that everyone has seen before—or more precisely, everyone except them.
Chief among his fellow naifs is John (Paul Walker), a man of several talents. Their bond seems most entrenched, their shared glances weighted with meaning of some kind. While Gordon makes the final decisions, John’s “the one with the higher consciousness and shit,” according to Ghost (T.I.), who’s just getting out of prison as the movie begins. He’s been inside for the usual reason: a job back “in O-4” went bad, he took a fall, and the other boys kept his money for him in a secret place. Though all this was part of the unwritten contract among crewmembers, he still emerges mad and not a little menacing, not least because Jake (Michael Ealy) is now “with” Lilli (Zoe Saldana), who used to be with… well, you get the idea.
In spite of all these warning signs (check his nickname!), Ghost convinces the one with the higher consciousness and shit to tell the others he’s got a job. It pays lots, it’s dangerous, and oh yeah, it’s going to be rushed, so they’ll be skimping on their usual scrupulousness. “Why would I screw over my guys?” Ghost asks during an especially ominous meeting. They all pause, as if they’re wondering, even as you know they know the answer.
Thus begins the heisty business of Takers: a montage of scenes shows the team’s preparations for robbing an armored car of some $30 million. At the same time, more or less, they are pursued by a duo of intrepid detectives, Jack (Matt Dillon) and Eddie (Jay Hernandez). While each of these two has a domestic issue (as all cops in such adventures must), they both spend long hours watching grainy surveillance tapes of bank job Gordon’s guys perpetrated early in the film, noting the masked men’s body types and gestures—in particular, a brash salute to the camera by Jake’s little brother, Jesse (Chris Brown). Jack is especially obsessive, having just split from his wife. He dedicates his weekends and after-hours to the case, trolling the PD database and even dragging his young daughter, Sunday, along in his car when he happens to spot a suspect on the street.
Here’s where the prosaic nature of this boys’ movie kicks in double-time. Certainly, not all such movies are condemned to rehearse the themes and morals that this one does (from shootouts to chases to a Butch-and-Sundance suicide homage). But Takers early on winds itself into a kind of generic knot and never gets loose from it. Jack’s intensity might be endangering his child or indicating his own lack of perspective (his apartment is dark, his desk is cluttered, and Eddie asks, “Are your meds not working or do we just need to get you laid?”). But it also makes him a worthy opponent for the thieves (grouped together under the tagline, “We’re takers, that’s what we do”). As the standout obsessives, Gordon and Jack both imagine they’re smarter, or at least cannier, than their opponents. The fact that neither is precisely aware of the other’s identity until late in the plot makes their conflict more conventional than personal.
And this is the film’s essential dilemma: how can it make its very familiar machinations seem even vaguely fresh? Most obviously, Takers dresses up its clichés with shiny surfaces, slow-motiony violence, fast cars and cuts. It also goes through motions of granting its boys some extracurricular life details, notably Gordon’s sister and Jack’s daughter. Naomi and Sunday both appear as obligations, embodying what the men are missing as they obsess. When Eddie notices that Sunday is distraught, he tries to soothe her, then turns to his partner: “Take care of the real stuff,” he advises.
But Jack can’t take care of the real stuff. He can’t even see it.