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John Leguizamo, serious actor. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Sure, he’s done plenty of dramatic roles, from Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and of course, his iconic role as “Friend of Boyfriend” in Madonna’s 1984 Borderline music video. Despite these forays into heavy narrative, the Clown Prince of Corona made his bones deep in comedy and his very appearance on stage, TV or film preconditions his audience to expectations of comedy win.

In The Take, director Brad Furman’s first feature, we’re asked to put that familiar figure to the side. The Take opens in Boyle Heights; a predominantly Mexican section of East L.A. Leguizamo plays Felix De La Peña, hard working patriarch of a close-knit family. Together with wife Marina {Rosie Perez}, they care of their truculent teenage daughter and younger son. Felix is an armoured card driver and on a day like any other, he heads off to work and his life is changed forever. While waiting for his partner to retrieve lunch as is their Friday custom, Felix’s truck is hijacked. In an elaborately planned heist, the ruthless hijackers take no prisoners as they invade the armoured truck company leaving Felix for dead with a bullet lodged in his brain. Felix somehow survives, but is changed and not just because of the brain damage he suffers. Felix recovers from a coma, his healing progresses and he returns home, his behaviour is completely unpredictable putting tremendous strain on his loving family. His erratic manner is intensified by the feelings of helplessness as he recalls only fragments of what happened to him, remembering that in the face of the hijacking he could do nothing to fight back. Felix’s spells become violent and threatening to his family and adding to his troubles, two FBI agents are doing their best to pin the hijacking on Felix, fixing it as an inside job gone bad. Pressed to the wall with nowhere to turn, Felix decides to straighten things out for himself and using the few memories he has of that night, goes out to track down the robbers.

The Take was clearly a labour of love for those involved. The film is patently no-budget and seems to have been shot on the fly in many instances, adding to its atmospheric grittiness. An amateurish worship of the dreaded shaky-cam is rife throughout and some actors are better directed than others. But by that same token, the real jewel of The Take is in the performances by its leads. Leguizamo truly embodies Felix and the harrowing story of a man who had all that anyone could want from a life, a loving wife, adoring kids, friends, a good job, then has everything brutally stolen from him. Leguizamo lures us into immediately liking Felix by using the rapid-fire sense of humour we all know as he lovingly jokes with Marina and his friends at work. The laughs make his decline after the shooting that much more poignant. He’s no longer able to function even as a husband to Marina. He can’t control the awful rantings he spews against his children at the slightest provocation. He’s a time bomb. Rosie Perez does some of her best work as Marina, the strong, supportive wife who is bereft as Felix’s condition becomes unmanageable. Perez and Leguizamo have wonderful chemistry, riffing off each other in the opening scenes with familiar ease and that level of comfort is what makes their dedication to each other in the bad times so honest. Marina is grateful to have Felix alive after his ordeal, but even with her medical training as a nurse, she can’t handle what he’s becoming. In a terrific scene, the solid, dedicated woman lets go of all her pain and frustration and the breakdown is heart-rending.

The depiction of the De La Peña family is particularly touching; the emphasis on their devotion to each other in a stereotype-free Latino household was nice to see. I enjoyed their warmth and affection in the days before the hijacking, living out the small dramas that every family goes through, the discussion about health insurance costs, dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter; then standing together as a strong unit after Felix’s shooting. The film also takes an unusual look at the realities of the day to day life of a person who’s gone through a traumatic brain injury and their struggles. Watching Felix wreck his living room in frustration over memories he can’t recall and inner turmoil he can’t put a name to, it’s not a pretty picture.

Other than a harrowing chase scene between Felix and one of his assailants through a town market - it’s apparent that none of the extras came from Central Casting - the heist plot of The Take isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. Brad Furman’s brilliance is in his wise choice to focus on the emotional repercussions of Felix’s hijacking and in showcasing Leguizamo and Perez directing them to some of their finest performances.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

April 6th, 2008

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Destination Films)