These days, it seems you can’t go to a film, turn on your television or surf the net without coming across Idris Elba and the army of adoring fans he’s amassed over the years. The English actor has been working overseas since the mid-1990s but really broke through in North America as Russell “Stringer” Bell on the critically acclaimed HBO drama The Wire.
Since then, Elba has headlined the popular BBC crime drama Luther and appeared in countless films, including the Thor series, Netflix drama Beasts of No Nation and this summer’s Star Trek Beyond. Next, he’ll lead the much-anticipated film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. But with such a versatile resume, how does Elba’s newest film, The Take, measure up?
Previously titled Bastille Day, the movie sees Elba play CIA Agent Sean Briar, who’s charged with foiling a terrorist plot in Paris soon after taking up a new post in the city. When a bombing involving a young woman (Charlotte Le Bon) goes awry, Briar finds himself teamed up with young thief Michael Mason (Richard Madden) to catch the perpetrators and prevent further death and destruction on the eve of the French holiday of Bastille Day (hence the original title). Originally set for release in February 2016, the film was pushed back after a string of terrorist attacks befell Paris in November 2015. Given the subject matter and the very bombastic way The Take handles the material, perhaps this approach was for the best.
Director James Watkins doesn’t have a ton of experience to bring to the table, having only previously helmed 2008 thriller Eden Lake and 2012 horror hit The Woman in Black. Nevertheless, he brings a real energy to The Take, as Briar and his unexpected ally rush against time to unravel the mystery behind the bombing. Where the film falters, unfortunately, is in its tone.
The script – written by Watkins and Andrew Baldwin (in his apparent screenwriting debut) – postures itself as a serious political thriller but then sprinkles in too many police procedural clichés to really enrich the political status quo. Moreover, the relationship between Briar and Mason ventures into action/comedy buddy territory, thereby undercutting any gravitas that scenes revolving around the carnage and the underlying conspiracy behind it aimed to infuse into the action.
The action scenes themselves are appropriately thrilling, and one particular fight set in a speeding van stands as perhaps the most memorable. Given Watkins’ own lack of experience directing action, one can only wonder how much of what works about the action scenes can be tied back to cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones, who shot films like Snatch and Kick-Ass 2 in addition to Watkins’ own The Woman in Black.
Elba has both the physicality and charisma to carry these scenes, too. Though he’s saddled with a fairly stereotypical take-no-prisoners tough-guy persona (complete with a distinct problem with authority), the actor rises to the challenge. Granted, his performance may have been even more satisfying had The Take allowed him to retain his cool natural inflection, but even with an American accent, Elba can’t help but own the screen.
Top to bottom, this is a star vehicle for Elba (he even sings the theme song during the end credits!). However, the plot – as muddled as it may be – does at least make an effort to play into modern fears. Social media (hashtags!) and mass hysteria play significant roles, and in the current tumultuous political climate the world is facing, this attempt at grounding the action spectacle and more hackneyed elements of The Take very nearly helps hold the film together enough to make it work. In the end, it still emerges as a fairly middle-of-the-road thriller, but the fact that it aspires to be something more is admirable nonetheless.
Regardless, The Take may still be worth watching for those looking for an action-thriller that offers about as much substance and as many twists as the Taken series. It’s no surprise that Elba is truly in his element as the gruff, badass action hero that drives The Take forward, and even though the material he’s working with here could have been stronger, the actor would be wise to dabble in similar big-screen projects going forward.
After all, if Liam Neeson can reinvent himself as a middle-aged street-level crimefighter, then the 44-year-old Elba can certainly find similar success within the genre. Perhaps then he’ll finally curry enough goodwill to land the role so many want to see him take on: James Bond. Come on Sony, it’s time.
Idris Elba makes a dynamite action star, but this politically charged thriller doesn't give him the support he needs to become the next Liam Neeson.