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'Takers' steals from the best

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Chris Brown and Michael Ealy co-star in John Luessenhop's "Takers."
Chris Brown and Michael Ealy co-star in John Luessenhop's "Takers."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Takers" is story of slick thieves played with their own personal problems
  • Charity: "Takers" isn't exactly revolutionary but sucks you in
  • Director John Luessenhop's action scenes are top-notch, says Charity
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(CNN) -- In June, for the first time, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission approved a request to trade futures and option contracts against opening weekend box-office returns, and though it's sheer coincidence, "Takers" proves a weirdly appropriate title for this dubious milestone.

It's the story of a group of slick thieves -- Chris Brown, Michael Ealy, Hayden Christensen Paul Walker -- high rolling heist merchants who dress like GQ models, drive sports cars and motorcycles, and who are as comfortable debating investment opportunities as they are casing their next bank job. In other words, they're more like Wall Street traders than "Bonnie and Clyde." They even donate a standard 10 percent of the loot to charity. Anonymously, presumably.

They are led by Idris Elba, Stringer Bell from "The Wire," so we know they mean business -- even if the gang's first master plan hinges on a crazy getaway by a hijacked TV news helicopter. Whoever dreamed that one up must have had an eye for long odds. When they're done, they blow the chopper up. (Wouldn't it have been more discreet to wear gloves?)

"Takers" isn't exactly revolutionary in glorifying flashy criminals -- gangster movies have done that for years. But heist films are more about entrepreneurialism than criminality, which is one reason why the thieves here and in the Danny Ocean movies scarcely seem to need the money. (The cops, Matt Dillon and Jay Hernandez, don't have it so easy.)

Heist movies celebrate a peculiar kind of professionalism: The collective endeavor of a tight-knit group of individuals, each with his own expertise -- not unlike an acting ensemble putting on a show. The pleasure lies in appreciating the perfection of the planning and preparation, and then, more often than not, watching those best laid plans fall apart in the execution.

Michael Mann brought the form to its highest expression in "Heat," and for much of its running time "Takers" feels, well, re-Heated. Elba and Dillon aren't exactly DeNiro and Pacino, but like Mann's antagonists, they come fitted with irritating personal crises that threaten to cramp their style. For the criminal, it's a crack-addict sister he's trying to help through rehab (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). For the cop, it's a marital crisis and a young daughter he takes on surveillance with him.

But it sucks you in. Co-writer-director John Luessenhop keeps things flowing, cutting smartly between Dillon's dogged investigation and the gang's next job. The visuals are a digital blur propelled by a barrage of rap and rock. There is nothing original here but at least he is stealing from the best. Fans of macho-romantic thrillers by the likes of Jean Pierre Melville, Walter Hill, John Woo and Johnnie To will be in their element.

It helps that the action scenes are top-notch: A relentless, parkour-inflected chase through Los Angeles traffic is as good as the comparable scene in "Salt." And the set-piece armored car robbery combines suspense, surprise, and bone-crunching crashes in generous portions.

Not all the Luessenhop's flourishes pay off, but TI Harris's enigmatic "Ghost" sure does: He's the wild card in this pack, a founding member of the gang they left for dead back in 04. Now he's out of prison. But what's driving that rush to make the biggest score of their lives? The clues are to be found in fleeting gestures, feints and glances, the way men speak when they're not saying anything.