The record of rappers becoming actors is decidedly mixed. Eminem drew praise for his semi-autobiographical turn in 8 Mile while his Detroit neighbor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson was largely panned for his work in his 2005 biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Ice Cube and Ice T have both earned steady paychecks and occasional acclaim on the big and small screens while the less-esteemed member of the Brothers Ice Vanilla never quite recovered from 1991‘s disastrous Cool as Ice.
Two of the latest hip-hoppers to attempt the leap Chris Brown and Tip “T.I.” Harris can both be seen in the heist thriller Takers. They also served as producers on the film and in that regard they deserve credit for helping assemble a cast that quite effectively lowers the bar for their acting work. In an ensemble that includes the likes of Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen they needn’t worry about issuing Oscar-worthy performances. As long as they’re semi-ambulatory they stand a fairly good chance of keeping pace with Takers’ slow-moving herd.
The film’s plot concerns a swaggering crew of bank robbers whose sophisticated methods have enabled them to pull off a number of high-stakes heists with nary a hitch. Their strict adherence to a one-job-per-year schedule is enough to fund a luxurious lifestyle in which they freely indulge their tastes for fancy cars tailored suits single-malt scotch and big cigars (No King Cobra and Swisher Sweets for these classy gents. No siree.) All of which is fastidiously depicted by director John Luessenhop (Lockdown) whose aesthetic sensibility in Takers varies between hip-hop video and Maker’s Mark ad.
And they’re decent civic-minded folks too: Jake (Michael Ealy) is eager to leave the game and settle down with his fiance (Zoe Saldana) the proprietor of a trendy downtown L.A. cocktail lounge; his brother Jesse (Brown) wants to ensure their elderly father is taken care of upon his release from prison; proper English chap Gordon (Idris Elba the lone standout) faithfully shepherds his junkie sister through rehab; John’s (Walker) moral compass won’t allow for shooting cops or unarmed civilians; and A.J. (Christensen) is a talented pianist whose bowler hat and hoarse hepcat diction are I can only assume indicative of a deep appreciation for jazz-age style.
But for all the gang’s obvious intelligence their judgment of character is appallingly poor. When a shady former associate named Ghost (T.I. — which after watching the film I now realize stands for "Totally Incoherent") comes to them with a suspiciously lucrative new opportunity he claims to have hatched during a recent jail stint the fellas need all of a nanosecond to sign on to the dubious scheme forsaking all of the rules that made them successful. Why they’d place their livelihoods on the line for an ex-con who can’t be bothered to raise his eyelids above half-mast or pronounce consonants appearing at the end of words like “love” (which his lazy twang renders “luh”) is beyond me but it’s the first of several missteps that open the door for Detective Jack Welles (Matt Dillon) an old-school cop who refuses allow a crumbling marriage chronic sleep deprivation or established caselaw involving warrants and Miranda rights to deter him in his dogged pursuit of justice.
Takers features a smattering of the expected twists and turns most of which are sufficiently telegraphed by Luessenhop’s direction which downshifts to slow-motion at the advent of every action sequence and the film’s predictable story arc. What is surprising about the film is its lack of verve an absolute must for a heist flick and something which even the worst of the Ocean’s films boasted. For all of its bullets and bling Takers all too often feels as lethargic as its co-producer and co-star T.I. looks. (Although to be fair Dillon appears at times to be sleep-walking as well.)
Within the whole sports genre we really haven’t seen a Ping-Pong movie before—especially one portayed in such a spectacularly goofy way. Former child Ping-Pong prodigy Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) who was unceremoniously defeated decades ago is now reduced to performing ball tricks on stage at a local bar. But Randy’s luck changes when FBI Agent Rodriguez (George Lopez) recruits him for a secret mission: to ferret out FBI’s Most Wanted arch-villain and Ping-Pong connoisseur Feng (Christopher Walken) the man who killed Randy’s father. But times have changed since Randy choked and Ping-Pong is now played in an unsanctioned underground and extreme kind of way. Randy has to get into shape with the spiritual guidance of a blind Ping-Pong master named Wong (James Hong) and his kickass niece Maggie (Maggie Q) in order to make it to Feng’s mysterious jungle compound to play in the most unique Ping-Pong tournaments ever staged. Randy has his work cut out for him though if he’s going to wield his paddle and triumph over rampant wickedness. Who is this Dan Fogler guy and why haven’t we seen him before? Apparently he’s been on stage winning a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway play The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among other things. Now Hollywood is beckoning—and it looks like Fogler has the chops to stick it out. Sort of a cross between Jack Black and Meatloaf the actor totally makes Balls of Fury’s campiness work. He also has lots of help from his fellow players: Lopez is hilarious as the FBI agent who has been working a desk job but fancies himself a James Bond; veteran Asian actor Hong gets to use chopsticks in some interesting ways as the sage but cantankerous Wong; the hard-bodied Maggie Q (wonder what the "Q" stands for) who up to this point has only kicked butt in action movies like Live Free or Die Hard and Mission: Impossible III plays it light in Balls; and of course Mr. Walken as the evil Feng doing his own impression of any Bond villian you can think of while still being Christopher Walken. That man has WAY too much fun in this film. Also look for loads of cameos by recognizable folks. Director/co-writer Robert Ben Garant and his screenwriting partner actor Thomas Lennon (who plays Randy’s hysterical uber-Nazi Ping-Pong rival Karl Wolfschtagg) certainly have a peculiar sense of humor something they created while working on MTV’s The State’s sketch comedy back in the ‘90s and then cultivated on their Comedy Central show Reno: 911!. They’ve gone PG with writing credits such as Night at the Museum and The Pacifier but have gotten R-rated especially with the Reno 911: Miami big-screen effort. Balls of Fury falls somewhere in between (that would be PG-13)--a mixture of James Bond bad martial-arts films Matrix-like slow-mo effects and just about any sports movie starring Will Ferrell. In other words for as many tiny balls that get batted around in any number of silly ways if you buy into their particular brand of comedy (like me) Balls of Fury will keep you in stitches. Oh and if you're a Def Lepperd fan you'll also be pleased with the soundtrack.
Lonely Hearts is really two stories set in post WWII America. The main story is about Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) a small-time swindler who bilks war widows out of their insurance money and life savings by getting them to fall in love with him. He then marries them and kills them once he has control of their assets. His neat little scam is thrown off kilter when he discovers that one of his targets Martha Beck (Salma Hayek) is penniless. He tries to dump her but she figures out his scheme and they become lethal lovers and partners in crime. The other story is about the detective (John Travolta) who tracks them down. He is picking up the pieces of his own tragic life after his wife commits suicide. His son (Dan Byrd) is a distant and difficult teenager and his girlfriend (Laura Dern) is trying to help him get on with his life. Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream) is excellent as the greasy playboy who seduces and kills lonely women. He plays the sleazy charm and indecisive weakness of Ray Fernandez perfectly. But the standout performance of the film is Salma Hayek. Although Martha Beck on her best day never looked anywhere near as good as Hayek does on her worst the actress makes the cold-blooded character her own doing whatever it takes to get her hands on the ill-gotten gains. The image of a bloody and frustrated Hayek in a frumpy housecoat sucking on a cigarette with a hacksaw in hand complaining about the tenaciousness of one of their victims is priceless. John Travolta is either miscast or misused as the tortured tough guy detective Elmer Robinson. This wasn't a cool character and Travolta is a cool star who seemed to be straight jacketed by a character who is almost completely reactionary. James Gandolfini and Laura Dern do their best in their supporting roles. Writer-director Todd Robinson turns in a serviceable job behind the camera but falls down on the script. Lonely Hearts' main problem seems to be his inability to wiggle away from the facts to create an engaging movie. Robinson is actually the grandson of the real-life detective who brought Fernandez and Beck to justice. Robinson never gets beyond the made-for-TV luridness of the basic story. Gandolfini gets stuck in the role of narrator which would have been much more engaging if Travolta's character would have been the one talking to the audience. Robinson never lets the audience inside the characters long enough to make the film a more emotional experience. This is a problem with true stories; the writers are often not able or willing to be creative with the lives and motivations of the characters who have done extraordinary and well-documented things.