Review: ‘Take Back,’ starring Mickey Rourke, Michael Jai White, James Russo and Gillian White

September 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michael Jai White and Gillian White in “Take Back” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

Take Back”

Directed by Christian Sesma

Culture Representation: Taking place in Coachella Valley, California, the action film “Take Back” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An attorney’s past comes back to haunt her as she and her husband become involved in vigilante justice for a sex trafficking ring that has kidnapped their daughter. 

Culture Audience: “Take Back” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching low-quality and ridiculous action flicks.

Mickey Rourke in “Take Back” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

“Take Back” is a good way to describe the “I want a refund” regretful response of viewers if they have the misfortune of buying or renting this atrocious action flick. You have to wonder what this movie’s producers were thinking to waste money on such an obvious junkpile flop that’s embarrassing to everyone involved. “Take Back” is yet another female exploitation film that tries to look nobler than it really us, just because there’s a vigilante mother who’s one of the main characters. There’s absolutely nothing worth admiring about this movie, unless you think it’s admirable to see Mickey Rourke as a gangster who adores his pet Pomeranians. A sleepwalker has more energy than the “I just don’t care anymore” performance that Rourke has in this awful dreck.

Directed by Christian Sesma and written by Zach Zerries, “Take Back” fails on almost every level of filmmaking. The acting is terrible, the plot and dialogue are beyond stupid, and even the action scenes in this movie are pathetic. Everything is sloppily filmed. About the only thing that the movie has going for it is it that has a few cast members with name recognition, such as Rourke and Michael Jai White, who both have been making trashy, low-budget movies for the past several years.

“Take Back” (which takes place in California’s Coachella Valley) opens with the kidnapping of two drunk women in their 20s who stumble out of a bar, flirt with each other, and then get abducted by men driving by in a van. The men are part of a sex trafficking ring led by a slothful thug named Patrick (played by Rourke), who spends half of his screen time lying on a bed and stroking his Pomeranians. It’s later revealed that Patrick’s real name is Jack, and he has a past connection to one of the movie’s protagonists.

The kidnapped women, one of whom is named Veronica Sanders (played by Emily Unnasch), are taken to a locked and dirty shed in a remote part of the valley, where they are held captive with about five or six other young and pretty women. The goons who are their captors are shown physically harassing and attacking the women in more than one scene. Patrick occasionally checks in on the kidnapping victims, but he lets his henchmen do most of the work in guarding the terrified women. Patrick uses the words “the merchandise” to describe these women.

Meanwhile, married couple Brian (played by Michael Jai White) and Zara (played by Gillian White) are spending their seventh wedding anniversary by boxing each other in a gym for fun. Brian is a martial arts instructor, while Zara is a successful real estate attorney who works for a private law firm. (Michael Jai White and Gillian White are married in real life.)

Zara is Brian’s second wife and the stepmother to Brian’s bright and obedient daughter Audrey (played by Priscilla Walker), who’s about 15 or 16 years old. Audrey’s mother is Brian’s ex-wife, who is not seen in the movie, but there’s a minor subplot where the ex-wife dies of cancer. Michael Jai White is the only cast member in this train wreck movie who seems to make an effort to have believable acting, but it’s still comes out looking corny. As for Gillian White’s acting, let’s just say that “Take Back” is proof that nepotism in getting a movie role can actually make a movie worse.

Now that viewers know that Zara and Brian have fighting skills, Zara is next seen in a small coffee shop, where she puts some of those skills to use when she gets involved in a harrowing incident. A very angry and mentally unstable man has come into the coffee shop, where he begins yelling at the barista (played by Lucia Romero), who seems to be the only employee in the shop. Apparently, the barista was in a relationship with this furious ex, and now he’s threatening her with gun.

And just like that, Zara goes into action by disarming this creep and holding him until he can get arrested. Another customer in the shop has videorecorded the whole incident on his phone. The video soon goes viral and gets more than 1 million views in a short period of time. A woman from Zara’s past has seen this video and is about to pay an unwanted visit to Zara at Zara’s law office.

The woman is named Nancy (played by Jessica Uberuaga), who looks like she’s more comfortable hanging out at a truck stop than at a law firm. She wears garish makeup, a revealing tank top and ripped denim shorts. And she’s often seen vaping. What are the odds that she knows Patrick the pimp?

Nancy also seems to know Zara too. When she shows up at Zara’s office without an appointment, she insists on talking to Zara. Nancy tells Zara that she saw Zara’s viral video and says she knows that Zara’s real name is Kim. Zara insists to Nancy that her name isn’t Kim. Zara also claims that she’s never seen or met Nancy before, but Nancy says that Zara is lying.

Zara tells Nancy to leave the office, by yelling, “Leave me the fuck alone!” But you just know that Zara and Nancy are going to see each other again. This unexpected visit seems to have unnerved Zara, which means that she’s got a big secret that will eventually be revealed. The secret is not surprising at all, considering this movie is as subtle as a bulldozer in a junkyard, which is kind of like how you could describe the abominable acting in this film.

Less than 48 hours after Zara disarmed the crazed gunman in the coffee shop, she goes through another violent experience. While she’s home alone one day, a thug named Cisneros (played by David Will No) breaks into the house with the intent to kill her. Zara is able to fight off her attacker in the living room, and she kills him with a samurai sword that conveniently happens to be in the room. Before this attack, Cisneros was seen talking on a phone to a boss who ordered this home invasion. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who this boss is.

All this trauma in a short period of time has left Zara with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The PTSD comes out in an incident where Zara agreed to help Brian with potential new students at a boxing demonstration at a dojo. However, Zara has a flashback freakout and starts pummeling Brian too hard during the demonstration, and then she abruptly runs out of the building.

This PTSD puts a strain on Zara and Brian’s marriage. And then Brian’s ex-wife dies of cancer. And just so more bad things can happen to this family, Brian and Audrey are driving in Brian’s car when they get carjacked. Brian is tasered while Audrey is kidnapped. What are the odds that Audrey was kidnapped by the sex-trafficking ring that’s run by Patrick?

The kidnapping is reported to law enforcement, but Zara and Brian think that the cops won’t be of much help. And so Zara and Brian take the law into their own hands and go on a mission to find and rescue Audrey themselves. You know exactly how this is all going to end.

There are three characters connected to law enforcement who play a role in this predictable story. Anthony DeMarco (played by Nick Vallelonga) is a former detective who knows a lot about Patrick because he was tasked with investigating Patrick years ago. Detective Frank Schmidt (played by James Russo) and his cop partner Detective Perez (played by Jay Montalvo) are investigating the recent kidnappings.

Another supporting character is Jerry Walker (played by Chris Browning), one of Zara’s clients. Jerry owns a vast park called Lake Cahuilla that he inherited from his father. The scenes were actually filmed at Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park, a 71-acre property owned by California’s Riverside County and located near the Santa Rosa Mountains. Jerry’s property ends up being a part of this movie’s very flimsy plot. “Take Back” is time-wasting trash that should be avoided at all costs, unless you’re a masochist who is compelled to see all of Rourke’s horrible movies in the final years of his career.

Shout! Studios released “Take Back” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘Vanquish’ (2021), starring Morgan Freeman and Ruby Rose

May 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ruby Rose in “Vanquish” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Vanquish” (2021)

Directed by George Gallo

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the action film “Vanquish” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the criminal underground and law enforcement.

Culture Clash: A corrupt and retired police officer forces a former colleague to do some of his dirty work, in exchange for setting her kidnapped underage daughter free from captivity.

Culture Audience: “Vanquish” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind wasting time watching a dimwitted, poorly made and incoherent film.

Morgan Freeman in “Vanquish” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

At some point while filming the horrific embarrassment that is “Vanquish,” Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman must have asked himself, “How did I end up in this garbage movie?” It might have been an easy paycheck for Freeman, but it came at a cost to some of his dignity to be in this putrid cesspool of terrible filmmaking. Freeman seems to know it too, based on his zoned-out performance, which is barely distinguishable from the rest of the stiff and terrible acting that stinks up this trash pile of an action flick.

Viewers unlucky enough to watch “Vanquish” might think that the movie’s sloppy and amateurish filmmaking might be from a first-time feature-film director. No, “Vanquish” is the 13th feature film directed by George Gallo, who made his feature directorial debut with the 1991 dramedy “29th Street,” starring Anthony LaPaglia, Danny Aiello and Lainie Kazan. Gallo is best-known as the screenwriter for the 1988 crime-caper comedy “Midnight Run” (starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin) and for coming up with the story that would turn into the 1995 action hit movie “Bad Boys,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.

Based on his filmography, Gallo has done plenty of movies about mismatched people who are involved in some criminal activities. In other words, this type of subject matter isn’t new to him. And that’s why it’s even more mind-boggling that “Vanquish” (which Gallo wrote with Sam Bartlett) is so badly bungled on every single level of filmmaking. The plot is nonsensical, the aforementioned acting is cringeworthy, and the way that the film was shot and edited makes some no-budget YouTube prank videos look like masterpieces in comparison.

It’s a very bad sign when “Vanquish” has an opening credits sequence that lasts for a bloated six minutes. That’s how long it takes for the movie to repetitively show newspaper clippings and news footage of police officer Damon Hickey (played by Freeman) becoming a decorated hero during the course of his long career. (The movie doesn’t mention where this story takes place, but it’s supposed to be in a U.S. city.)

Damon’s career was cut short when he was gunned down in a shootout that left him with paraplegia. And so, throughout this entire dull and dreary movie, Damon is in a wheelchair while he lives by himself in a sleek-looking mansion worth millions. How could a retired police officer afford such a luxurious home when he doesn’t come from a rich family and there’s no sign that he married into wealth? And how could Damon’s ownership of this mansion, which is beyond his cop salary, not raise suspicions from law enforcement?

This illogical movie never answers the second question, but it answers the first question. Damon has been a corrupt cop involved in skimming money from drug deals and other crimes. And he’s been able to get away with it. For reasons that aren’t made clear except for vague references to revenge, Damon now wants payback from certain people in the criminal underworld. And he plans to steal loads of cash from them.

And that’s where Victoria (played by Rose) comes into the picture. Victoria, who is originally from Australia (as is Rose in real life), is Damon’s caretaker and a single mother to a daughter named Lily (played by Juju Journey Brener), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Victoria is in for a shock one night when she and Lily are in Damon’s home, and Lily goes missing. Damon calmly informs Victoria (whom he calls Vicky) that Lily is safe but in captivity, and Victoria won’t get Lily back unless Victoria does what Damon says.

Damon wants Victoria to go to five different pre-planned places to pick up cash. But it’s not as simple as that. Damon also wants Victoria to murder anyone who gets in her way. Damon knows exactly where his criminal targets are gathered at these places. And so, even if any of these crooks owed Damon any money, he won’t be satisfied with just the money. He wants them dead.

And why is Victoria so qualified to do these dirty deeds? She used to be a drug courier for the Russian mafia, which explains why she has assassin skills. It doesn’t explain why viewers have to be subjected to the idiocy of scene after scene where she’s able to single-handedly take on several armed opponents at once and never miss a target when she fires a gun.

After Victoria goes to each of the location to murder people and pick up a bag of cash, she gets on her motorcycle and delivers the cash to Damon. Then, Damon and Victoria spew some badly written lines that are supposed to be arguments. And then, Victoria hops on her motorcycle to go to the next destination. Freeman literally does nothing in this movie but sit in a wheelchair and act cranky and self-righteous.

During the course of this movie, viewers find out that Victoria can not only speak Russian but she can also speak German and French. Be prepared to hear Rose mangle words in different languages. With her limited acting range (and that’s putting it nicely), she barely has command of the English language.

Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a muddled storyline about some gangsters who’ve caught a snitch in their group. This snitch’s secret audio surveillance was found on a portable cassette tape recorder that would need a wire for remote recording. What year is this? 1991?

Viewers know that this movie takes place in the era of digital, wireless recorders because Damon keeps track of Victoria through a high-tech digital video surveillance system that he requires her to wear during her robbery/killing spree. And that’s why it’s almost laughable that the snitch was found with a cassette recorder that looks like it was left over from an old episode of “Law & Order.”

The snitch has been killed, and the people he secretly recorded are corrupt cops who used to work with Damon. They include B.J. (played by Paul Sampson), Erik (played by Miles Doleac), Sniper (played by Richard Salvatore) and Max (played by Ele Barda). These goons show up at various points in this messy story, where not even the clergy is immune to the corruption. In a flashback scene, Damon is shown in a confessional with a priest named Father Thomas (played by Bill Luckett), who’s been in cahoots with Damon in their criminal activities.

Are there any good cops in this story? Not really. There are some law enforcement people who turn up at various points in the movie, but they don’t do anything except say moronic lines while they hang out in seedy bars. The cops in the movie certainly don’t seem to be doing any real police work.

These useless characters include Detective Stevens (played by Nick Vallelonga), Detective Kehoe (played by Chris Mullinax) and Agent Monroe (played by Patrick Muldoon). Freeman isn’t the only Oscar winner in the “Vanquish” cast. Vallelonga won two Oscars for being a writer and a producer of the 2018 dramedy “Green Book.” It goes to show that being an Oscar winner doesn’t automatically give someone the good sense to avoid bottom-of-the-barrel projects.

While Victoria speeds around the city in her motorcycle to go from destination to destination, Damon inexplicably acts as if he’s her personal GPS, by giving her directions. Expect to see a lot of footage of Freeman sitting in a wheelchair and barking empty lines such as “Go there!” or “Turn left!” The only direction this movie goes is off the rails.

Victoria is armed with two large guns that she keeps exposed in full view while they’re tucked into the back side of her jeans. And so, there’s scene after scene of her walking into these criminal hangouts, where her guns are exposed and no one stops her or questions her. The bodyguards who are supposed to protect the criminals are completely incompetent (just like this movie’s screenplay is incompetent), because it doesn’t take long for Victoria to open fire and slaughter everyone in sight. Remember, she never misses a target.

During her first stop at a nightclub where her targets are, Victoria shoots and kills some people in a back room without a gun silencer, and the movie wants viewers to believe that no one could hear the gunshots because the door was closed. These lunkheads apparently didn’t think that a known associate of Damon’s who walked into the club with two guns sticking out of her back wasn’t going to use these guns.

After these murders, Victoria manages to rescue a prostitute named Galyna (played by Hannah Stocking), who begs to be set free from these thugs. Victoria decides that she and Galyna should play it cool and walk out of the club as if they’re friends having a laugh. “Can you pretend I’m funny?” Victoria asks Galyna. Galyna replies, “I’m a prostitute!,” as if to say “I already know how to act.” Too bad no one knows how to act in this film.

Another mindless massacre scene is one where Victoria encounters an over-the-top effeminate/flamboyant gangster named Rayo (played by Joel Michaely), who has one of the worst fake Southern accents you’ll ever hear in a movie. Victoria shows up unannounced at Rayo’s home. Rayo offers Victoria some Mint Julep, as if she’s at the Kentucky Derby, not in the lair of a sleazy criminal who has some heavily drugged young men on his living room sofa. (Adults will know exactly what those young men are doing there and why they’ve been drugged.)

And because Victoria is as dimwitted as this movie’s screenplay, she drinks the Mint Julep, even though she sees that there are people on the sofa who are in a drugged stupor. The Mint Julep is laced with a sedative, of course. Damon is watching this fiasco the whole time on his video surveillance camera. As Victoria is about to pass out from the unnamed drug that she ingested in the Mint Julep, Damon sees that there’s a small mound of cocaine on a nearby table. You can easily guess what he tells Victoria to do and what happens next.

And did we mention that Victoria used to have a (now-dead) brother who was her partner in crime? It’s of no consequence to this movie’s plot because it’s just another useless detail that’s thrown in to make it look like Victoria has a backstory. She really doesn’t.

That’s why there’s a ludicrous moment toward the end of the film where viewers find out that Victoria’s mother is the governor of the unnamed state where this movie takes place. Governor Ann Driscoll (played by Julie Lott) had not one but two children caught up in running drugs for the Russian mafia, and somehow this was never exposed by her political opponents. What a way to get elected.

One of the most annoying aspects of “Vanquish” is how it over-saturates the movie with fade-in/fade-out editing, as if to mimic a fever dream. It’s more like a nightmare to sit through this rubbish. The movie’s blaring soundtrack is distracting and often drowns out the dialogue.

And the filmmakers mistakenly thought that “Vanquish” would look artsy by having substandard cinematography that tries to make almost every interior look like a neon aquarium. It doesn’t look artsy. It looks garish and tacky.

In the production notes for “Vanquish,” director/co-writer Gallo makes this statement that reads, in part: “I have always enjoyed the Korean gangster film genre ever since I first became aware of them. These films have a cool, bouncy and deliciously dark vibe and most importantly, a great sense of humor … My attraction to ‘Vanquish’ was that I could make a film that I hadn’t really done before and infuse my love of these genres into my film.”

First of all, please don’t insult Korean cinema by comparing “Vanquish” to Korean gangster films. It’s like comparing toxic trash to works of art. Secondly, there is absolutely no humor in “Vanquish,” unless viewers want to laugh at how horrible everything in this movie is. And lastly, “Vanquish” does the exact opposite of what Victoria does every time she fires her gun: The movie completely misses the mark.

Lionsgate released “Vanquish” in select U.S. cinemas on April 16, 2021, on digital and VOD on April 20, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on April 27, 2021.

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