April 14, 2008

The Take

Reviewed by Martin Tsai
Giving the classic wrong-man narrative a streetwise update, “The Take” transcends the standard modus operandi with plenty of style to burn. Its urban grittiness and textured compositions rival the works of Fernando Meirelles and Tony Scott. Also showcasing top-form performances by John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez, this assured first feature by Brad Furman is so expertly put together that it exceeds expectations in every way. If it were in Portuguese with subtitles, people would hail it as the next “City of God.” But instead it opens at Quad Cinema today before heading straight to DVD next month.
Felix De La Peña (Mr. Leguizamo) is the everyman protagonist, an armored truck driver whose route covers east Los Angeles. A hijacking is the obligatory extraordinary circumstance in which our ordinary hero finds himself, one ending with the criminals putting a bullet in his head and leaving him for dead. Felix miraculously survives the ordeal, albeit with serious brain damage that causes memory loss and a shift in personality. Meanwhile, robbery suspects and witnesses alike become targets for assassination – a development in the criminal investigation that casts suspicion on Felix himself. He must attempt to reconstruct his memory while evading pursuit by FBI agents (Bobby Cannavale and Matthew Hatchette) and the real thief (Tyrese Gibson).
Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin illustrates the predominantly Hispanic Boyle Heights neighborhood with saturated colors and grainy exposure akin to a thick humidity. The jittery handheld camera – occasionally whizzing in and out of focus – adds urgency to an intense plot. This visual vocabulary immediately brings to mind “City of God” and “The Constant Gardner.” But “The Take” doesn’t seek to induce the kind of liberal guilt Mr. Meirelles elicited through making Benetton ads out of the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Nairobi. Mr. Furman employs the pseudo-documentary technique simply to create a credible backdrop for a plot that otherwise requires considerable suspension of disbelief.
The screenplay by Jonas Pate and Josh Pate has some unsatisfactory loose ends, but it does paint a studied portrait of a brain trauma victim. Felix’s head injury and the resulting personality shift become a source of marital discord between him and Marina (Ms. Perez). While other genre films of this ilk would have treated this as a superfluous tangent, “The Take” invests several scenes to flesh it out. This is good news for the actors, and they certainly don’t disappoint. Mr. Leguizamo gives a performance with enough nuance that he never seems over the top even when the script calls for ticking-bomb rage or manic paranoia. In basically a thankless supporting role, Ms. Perez also stands out as the dutiful but suffering wife.
“The Take” winds up in the traditional foot race, which sets up a daring plot twist that ultimately fails to materialize. Instead of going all out for a truly unsettling, “Infernal Affairs”-style conclusion, the Pate brothers aim lower and reach for “The Departed.” But that’s nitpicking really.
Reprinted from The New York Sun. © Copyright 2008 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.