Saturday, November 26, 2016

Movie Reviews: The Take, Law Abiding Citizen

The Take (aka Bastille Day)
directed by James Watkins
Stringer Bell and Robb Stark team up only to discover that they're probably better off apart.
This is another action film that continues the practice of using British actors in American roles. Some people (Idris Elba) can pull this off pretty seamlessly; others really ought to stop. There's not in my opinion, in most European based stories a compelling reason why a protagonist needs to be American. 

Done properly Americans will line up eagerly for films or series with European national protagonists (James Bond, Downton Abbey or Harry Potter anyone) -especially British ones. So why continue this practice of forcing British actors to try to take on American accents. 

Some of them just can't or even when they can are already so thoroughly identified with roles reflecting their own nationality that seeing them trying to pretend to be American immediately takes me out of the fictional story. Well whatever. You may feel differently of course. Acting is about new challenges and pretending to be someone else after all. The Take is a solidly made but altogether generic action movie that never quite lives up to the hype generated by the two male lead actors. 

It also suffers from not having a strong female lead. I don't mean strong as in physically or verbally combative. I mean that the lead women characters don't really have a lot of motivation on their own or for that matter have much meaning to the lead male characters. They could have been played by anyone. They didn't have a lot to do.

There is a a small but noticeable lack of chemistry between the men and women. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot was left on the cutting floor with at least one of the women characters. When the women are in danger I didn't feel anything other than "ho-hum". This is probably not a good thing. 

And for goodness sakes, when someone casually tells you "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. By the way did you tell anyone else about this?", the correct answer is always "Why yes. Yes I did. I told everyone and shared my itinerary with them as well!"

Michael Mason (Richard Madden "Robb Stark" from HBO's Game of Thrones) is an American con artist and pickpocket who is seeing the world after several aborted adventures in the Las Vegas area. He's a very good pickpocket. In fact, he might be the best who ever was. He's like a ghost.

He's expert at using all sorts of distraction to take your attention away from the fact that he's stealing from you. So what better place for Michael to be than in Paris where a good looking young man such as himself can blend in with all the beautiful people and make a great living. After a successful workday of thievery, Michael is off the clock when he notices an attractive young lady Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon) looking distraught on the steps of an office building. 

But Mr. Suave doesn't step up to Zoe to introduce himself and see if he can help make Zoe smile again. Nope, instead he calculates what he believes to be the exact time when surveillance cameras won't catch him and swipes her expensive looking shopping bag.  Michael doesn't find anything of value in Zoe's bag except her phone which he swipes. So he drops the bag near a restaurant and continues on his way. Mistake. There was a bomb in the bag. It explodes, killing a number of people. And guess whose image is on surveillance placing the bag near the restaurant? 

This brings Michael to the attention of the French authorities and to the local American CIA agents Sean Briar (Idris Elba) and his direct supervisor Karen Dacre (Kelly Reilly). As is usually the case in these sorts of films Briar is a loose cannon who's always on the verge of being fired and always has something smart to say to Dacre's boss Tom Luddy (Anatol Yusef "Meyer Lansky" from Boardwalk Empire) For reasons that don't make a lot of sense Dacre is protective of Briar. The Americans want to find Michael before the French do, especially the French Interior Minister Victor Gamieux (Jose Garcia). But as Dacre impresses on Briar they need Michael alive.

Briar is a frightfully intense individual who is not all that fettered by moral concerns when he's after a "terrorist". There are a lot of ethnic and religious tensions being whipped up in Paris after the bombing because Bastille Day is approaching.

There's a pretty good rooftop chase scene, more than a few fight scenes where Briar handles his business and looks good doing it, and some set pieces where the viewer is supposed to marvel at Michael's cunning and skill. But 48 Hours this was not. The movie revealed some things to the viewer before it did to the heroes, which I thought messed up the narrative. But if you like conspiracy films or at least like the idea of conspiracy films you may enjoy some of this movie. But believe me it is nothing you haven't seen elsewhere. 

Anyway, Elba brings absolute authority to his role and is quite convincing. Unfortunately he doesn't have enough to play against. The film makes a brief nod to the sheer number of American military bases, black sites and CIA safe houses across the world and the extra-legal status under which many American military, law enforcement and intelligence services have been operating.  All in all I guess this is a good movie for people who just like to look at Elba or Madden.

Law Abiding Citizen
directed by F. Gary Gray
I'm mad! I want revenge! My patience! Is! At! An End!
Justice is something that is fleeting in this world. We're urged not to take the law into our own hands because then justice becomes vengeance, which is not a good thing, though it may be a necessary one. Revenge won't make someone whole again, particularly for such obscenities as rape or murder but then again neither will lawful justice. So even for justice part of society's purpose is not just restorative but punitive. 

We want to make someone think twice about doing wrong again. That could require that the guilty party pay for his crime by being locked up for a number of years or in extreme cases pay for the crime with his own life. Whatever the case though few find it to be justice if the person gets away with the crime scot-free or if the justice system refuses to deliver a sentence of the appropriate magnitude. We've seen this in real life where rapists have received mere months in jail or judges have expressed sympathy for white-collar criminals who've stolen millions. 

From a large scale perspective the judges and prosecutors who staff our justice system can't get bogged down in the particulars of any one case. They are there on behalf of the people and are sworn to seek truth and justice under the law, not vengeance for the victim. It's a pretty important distinction. Remember that Mario Puzo made that distinction in his novel The Godfather where the undertaker Bonasera, seeking retribution for the beating and attemped rape of his daughter, went to Vito Corleone to reaffirm his personal loyalty: 
Don Corleone said curtly, "The court gave you justice."
Bonasera shook his head stubbornly. "No. They gave the youths justice. They did not give me justice".
The Don acknowledged this fine distinction with an approving nod, then asked, "What is your justice?"
The older movie Law Abiding Citizen is about this distinction between justice and vengeance. It is also about the difference between the mindset of a man who sees things strictly in terms of right or wrong and a man who is forced by the very nature of his job to rank evils and make deals with criminals. Is it wrong to pay evil unto evil? Is it possible to do that without eventually becoming evil yourself? This film is also one of the better locked room murder mysteries out there. 
Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is a happily married engineer in the Philadelphia area. He and his wife also have a cute as a button little daughter. As do most husbands and fathers, Shelton loves his wife and child more than anything. So it is a great life altering horror when Shelton and his family suffer a two man home invasion. 

Tied up, Shelton can only watch (this is thankfully off screen) when his wife and daughter are raped and murdered. But the men leave Shelton alive. Shelton is like most of us, pretty naive about the law and justice system. So he thinks that it's a done deal that both men will go to trial where he will proudly testify against them. But the police mishandle some of the DNA evidence, contaminating it. The prosecutor assigned the case, Nick Rice (Jaime Foxx) doesn't like to take chances in court that might impact his conviction rate. Who knows what juries will do?  Rice intends to run for DA one day and can't afford messiness. 

When the actual rapist and murderer (the second fellow was an unwilling accomplice) offers to plead out to a lower charge and implicate his erstwhile buddy, Rice decides to take the plea. Shelton is shocked. As a result the accomplice gets the death penalty while the real killer walks free after a few years. Ten years pass. It's time for the accomplice to be put to death. But the execution goes wrong. Instead of being peaceably put to sleep the accomplice dies a long agonizing death. Someone changed the chemicals. And the real killer is found tortured to death. It looks like Shelton was behind both of these acts.

Shelton surrenders himself and offers to give a complete confession to his crimes, for certain considerations. But other people connected to the case are dying even though Shelton is locked up under increasingly stringent conditions. When Rice and his boss, DA Jonas Cantrell (Bruce McGill) do some checking into Shelton's background they discover that this seemingly mild mannered engineer is probably at the top of the list of people you do not want to f*** with. The chess match commences. The body count increases. Shelton has a lesson to teach. And Rice and company had better be paying attention.

This is an intelligent thriller that will make you think about good and evil and the choices we make every day for one or the other. There are quite a lot of twists and turns in this movie, some of which are admittedly almost impossible but that's the entertainment portion.  This film may make you think about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. It may make you think more about how easy it is for us to lose perspective.
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