Elba Charges Into Spy Thrills With Active, Thickheaded 'Take'

Directed by: James Watkins; Runtime: 92 minutes
Grade: C+

Rumors have been circulating lately about who'll be the tuxedo-wearing, martini-sipping replacement for Daniel Craig as the next James Bond, and one name that's become popular in the conversation is that of Idris Elba. Despite loving that his name has been involved in the discussion as what would be the first black iteration of the character, and simply because he's a powerhouse talent, there's something about Elba's signature stature and gruffness that deviates from the suave British superspy enough to make me second guess whether it'd be the right role for him. Instead, the thought lingered in my mind about what he'd be like in a separate movie featuring a renegade government operative, someone who's really allowed to unleash the fiery presence that the actor brought to Pacific Rim, Beasts of No Nation, and, more applicably, the TV series Luther. The Take, James Watkins' latest buddy thriller about an agent and a pickpocket thrown together to stop a terrorist organization in France, offers a cumbersome, somewhat mundane but enlivened realization of that.

Elba fills the role of Sean Brier, an ex-military operative who has joined the ranks of the CIA. His ascension in the organization has taken him to France upon rumblings of a terrorist presence, sending him after a suspect in a recent bombing. Turns out, the suspect is a "harmless" American pickpocket, Michael Mason (Richard Madden), who was, through happenstance, framed for the lethal bombing in the city, the result of the wrong mark on the wrong night. Together, the pair put their heads and talents together to pursue the real threats behind the terrorist act, funneling toward a group that seems to be building toward a much larger strategy that'll culminate on Bastille Day -- also the film's original title -- with elements that tie into social-media coordination. What they uncover in their investigation goes much deeper than they expected, leading into a complex series of events involving the CIA, French law enforcement, and the subterfuge that's complicating their search for the terrorists.

Some might catch a glimpse of the trailer and read the synopsis for The Take and think that this could, in some way, end up being an audition for Idris Elba to play James Bond, dropping the talent into a role that involves espionage and thorny coordination with the government agency that controls him. Turns out, putting Elba in the role of Brier does the exact opposite, forming a … counterargument of sorts in how well he embodies the roguish, blunt attitude of the soldier-turned-operative. His brusque vocal strength and aggressive body language -- Mason even claims "Have you seen you?" in the film -- aptly ties into the character's history and taps into Elba's core dramatic strengths, while playing off the sly, deceptive charms of Richard Madden's compelling thief Mason, a solid gray-area antihero for the Game of Thrones (ex-)star. By design, Elba's Brier isn't suave or subtle in the least, yet the character's no-nonsense methods work well for the setup and feeds off the actor's presence rather well.

Idris Elba also continues to handle the physicality of an action star exceedingly well in The Take, which puts his stature through the paces in standard, mindless yet hard-hitting espionage thriller style. Director Watkins doesn't explore many new ideas throughout the design of his action, throwing Brief amid a multi-opponent fistfight and a chase along the way, scenes that would honestly feel like they'd been edited together from a dozen other movies had Idris Elba not been in the center of the fray. Odd filmmaking choices along the way make covert tactics not seem to covert, especially in how Mason gets himself tied up with the terrorists in the first place, and it results in a dubious and convenient timetable of events and blunt, anticlimactic twists that isn't helped by odd hiccups in logic throughout. Luckily, with this being Elba's substantial action-movie vehicle, there's novelty to the ways in which his physicality enhances the hard thumps of fistfights and the deliberate inelegance of Brier's lack of subtlety in his tactics and strategies.

Despite the humdrum moving parts of the action, there's more to the plotting underneath The Take than expected, though. While terrorism can be clearly identified as a hot topic in the film's promotional materials, one might not be prepared for how well-timed its topics might appear, reflecting on the dynamics of authoritarianism as the flames of terrorism and protest are fanned -- and exploited -- until they grow out of control. A decidedly unsettling political overtone manages to give Watkins' film both forward motion and a noticeable degree of heaviness that it lugs around until its spirited climax on Bastille Day, which makes it unfortunate, no matter how realistic the sentiment may seem, to see it all devolve into a strategy hinged on monetary greed. It's too bad to see Elba muscle his way through inattentive scripting in the kind of spy-thriller that he's always seemed tailor-made to be involved in, but, then again, that does prove to be a stirring showcase for what he might be capable of in whatever missions lie ahead for him.

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