TAKE BACK (2021) is a halfway decent DTV action movie, not a great one. The main thing holding it back, I’d say, is an approach to action similar to a Liam Neeson movie; Gillian White (whose name is listed last on the cover, but she’s the actual star) seems like a badass and has a couple good head kicks and stuff, but they move the camera around like they got something to hide. In one scene she actually turns off the lights and then kills a bunch of guys in the dark, which would be a good gag if there were more parts where we actually did get to see her.
Nevertheless I enjoyed this movie and there are several things that are novel about it. So I am here to praise those things.
Gillian White (“Hey Lover” video by LL Cool J featuring Boyz II Men) plays Zara Roland, a successful lawyer living out in a desert town in the Coachella Valley with her husband Brian (Michael Jai White, “Where I Belong” video by Busta Rhymes featuring Mariah Carey) and stepdaughter Audrey (introducing Priscilla Walker). They’re the kind of couple that celebrates their 4th anniversary by sparring at the dojo where Brian teaches. He holds the pads and Zara punches the hell out of him.
This is a different type of role for MJW though. Brian’s day job is as a high school history teacher, he wears glasses and a jacket with the school logo and has a scruffy beard. And his main thing here is to be the supportive husband. That’s the coolest thing about the movie: in many ways it’s a gender reversal of the standard action template. She’s the one who has a secret past that comes back to haunt her after she happens upon a gunman and saves someone’s life, which gets covered in the news, which causes an old enemy to recognize her and come after her. Next thing you know people are coming after her and she’s fucking them up. Brian has no idea why this shit keeps happening, and his job is to be there with his arm around her as she tells the cops she doesn’t know anything, normally the wife’s role in these movies. (He also drives his old-enough-to-drive daughter to and from school.) Zara is the one who stays emotionally closed (they even have a talk about that) and sneaks off at night to go on a vigilante mission when she thinks he’s asleep.
There’s another DTV movie I liked years ago called IN THE BLOOD, starring a lady from a great Steven Soderbergh movie who I was a huge fan of for a limited ten year period. The cool thing about that movie was that it straight up followed a kidnapped wife formula, except in the Arnold/Seagal/Van Damme/whoever slot they had this woman and Cam Gigandet was the one abducted, and basically acted as a damsel in distress. TAKE BACK takes a different approach – they flip the usual roles but they do make some adjustments. Instead of revealing her fighting skills by being in a convenience store during a stick up she’s in a coffee shop during a domestic violence incident. And instead of being a former criminal who went into hiding she’s a former victim of sex trafficking who thought she killed her abductor when she escaped. Even her being a lawyer makes it different, because with the possible exception of STREET LAW starring Jeff Wincott, if a man is a lawyer in a movie it’s shorthand for sleazy or out of touch, whereas with a woman it means she’s a powerful, impressive professional.
And of course it would be an actual crime to have Michael Jai White in an action movie and not have him at least beat up a couple guys, so as domesticated as Brian is he does show up out of the blue to kick a little ass when she needs him to. The best gag is when one of the thugs looks him up and down and decides just to run away, permanently abandoning the movie.
I assume it’s a coincidence that Zara’s former tormentor is operating nearby. His name is Patrick and he’s played by Mickey Rourke in an appearance that is a mixed bag. On one hand, his face is distractingly puffy and stiff due to what appears to be some plastic surgery choices that are none of my business. And some of his scenes are just, like… slow motion footage of him thinking about something and then smiling. Or rewinding a recording of the news report about Zara and watching it over and over again on his analog TV. (Am I to understand he has a VCR and tapes the local news!?) And honestly he doesn’t do much, just sends a bunch of people who fail to kill Zara and then just stands unarmed and allows himself to be killed but acts like it’s an evil master plan.
On the other hand it’s also the exact kinda shit I love from Rourke. He’s wearing nice Hawaiian shirts, he keeps playing with various unexplained bandages, and his introduction, before they’ve explained what a monster he is, is him playing with little dogs calling them his babies and telling him how much he loves them. He has a little portrait of his real life deceased chihuahua and there’s a scene where he’s shaving a dog’s paw and cleaning its wound with a q-tip. His way of complimenting people is mostly, like, telling Zara he missed her and she looks great and he could still sell her ass, and I think it’s up to interpretation whether foulness is his intention or not.
Patrick’s main henchman is a big beardy bruiser called Dwayne (Paul Sloane, I AM WRATH), who isn’t a complex character but has a good, scary presence, and I like that he seems annoyed with his weirdo boss most of the time.
There’s some stuff about two cops, Schmidt (James Russo, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) and Perez (Jay Montalvo, THE ONION MOVIE) investigating. Schmidt manages to figure out who Zara really is and what’s up. There’s a scene where he goes to a bartender and starts pushing him for info. Turns out the guy is a former cop who had a chance to help Zarah when she was a young victim of sex trafficking, and instead told her he didn’t believe her and didn’t stop the crime from being covered up. I didn’t realize it, but the character is played by Nick Vallelonga, the guy who wrote GREEN BOOK about his dad, played by Viggo in the movie. He also wrote DEADFALL and was in Rif Coogan’s PSYCHO COP RETURNS.
And in the tradition of Seagal and many others, Zara has an old friend (Chris Browning, 3:10 TO YUMA, DARK COUNTRY, ROAD TO PALOMA) who can be counted on to have her back, including as a sniper (though his aim seems to be poor). The whole backstory is not explained, except that she helped him win a big legal fight over some land.
I got the feeling most of Rourke’s scenes were shot separately, and assumed it was because they could only afford him for a day or something. It wasn’t until I saw a credit for a Covid testing service that they had another excuse – this was shot during the pandemic. Come to think of it, Rourke’s climactic scene is outdoors, standing maybe 20 or more feet away from Zara! I’ll pretend that’s the only reason there’s not a big fight at the end. For safety.
I found an article from a local paper where they shot explaining that 10 cast members and 30 crew members were tested every few days, wore masks and quarantined at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California. (Bad news: the Kenny G show was postponed. But your tickets will still be valid for the new date.)
The article also answered a question I had: why does the cover say “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS”? Are you telling me there really was a survivor of sex trafficking who rescued her daughter from the same sex traffickers? No, of course not. According to producer Mike Hatton, “The movie was inspired by true events because Zach saw multiple news articles on several rings that had been busted. He took events from things he saw happening in real life and cobbled them into the backstory. We obviously have to be true to how these things are but, of course, we have to take creative liberties to keep it entertaining.”
The depiction of the operation really reminded me of EDEN (a.k.a. THE ABDUCTION OF EDEN), a really good Seattle-filmed movie on the topic which was supposedly based on a true story, but the person who told them it happened to her has since been pretty convincingly exposed as a fraud (but is still out there speaking as an expert). I actually kinda wondered if this was gonna turn out to be another one of her adventures.
This is the first credit for writer Zach Zerries. But director Christian Sesma has done several DTV action movies, some starring Luke Goss, and one called VIGILANTE DIARIES that stars Sloane and has Michael Jai White, Rampage Jackson, Jason Mewes and Michael Madsen in it.
For me, the takeaway from TAKE BACK is that The Whites could be the first great husband and wife action team. They have appeared together in NEVER BACK DOWN: NO SURRENDER and WELCOME TO SUDDEN DEATH, but this is the first time with Gillian in the lead role. I like her. Both of them had much better fights in WELCOME TO SUDDEN DEATH, but at least this is overall less cheesy, and we get to see them as a couple, which is cute.
I hope we get some more great MJW vehicles in the BLOOD & BONE vein some day – not to mention his comedy passion projects like THE OUTLAW JOHNNY BLACK – but hey, why not a side career where he and Gillian get to be the DTV William Powell and Myrna Loy? (Non-married duo Triple H and Parker Posey seem to have vacated the title.)