What would you do to get your daughter back from an Eastern European mob man? Your first answer is probably, “Become Liam Neeson.” And that’s basically the correct answer, even if it’s laughable for a whole host of reasons.
But it’s true that Taken has forever tainted the “Kidnapped Daughter” genre of films. No matter what the non-Taken film is or is trying to be, it’s going to make people think about Taken and how great (also terrible) a dad Liam Neeson is.
And so any movie about a father trying to save his kidnapped daughter exists in Taken‘s shadow. And that’s unfortunate for all of them, because it’s fairly likely that none of them are ever going to be as good. Case in point: Cash Only.
Director: Malik Bader
Release Date: March 13, 2016
Elvis Martini is down on his luck. After he inadvertently murdered (manslaughtered?) his wife in an arson attempt to get some insurance money from his house, he finds himself the landlord of a janky apartment building renting to some terrible tenants who, for the most part, don’t pay their rent or, ya know, care about anything at all. He lives with his daughter, who plays video games all day (at least two console generations behind, but more like three to five), because her father can’t afford to keep her in school. He owes some people money, and in the process winds up on the wrong side of some dangerous people. His daughter gets kidnapped, and suddenly he needs to get $25,000 together by midnight in order to get her back.
For this story to work, you have to find Elvis Martini a relatable character, one you can root for and feel for. You need to develop a bond that will override your general distaste for the bad things he does and the way he hurts people in order to deal with the aftermath of a very stupid thing that he did. If you don’t make that connection, then you’re just watching a bad guy do bad things. But not, like, interesting ones. Just bad ones.
At one point, soon after his daughter is taken, Martini asks one of his tenants for help. The tenant, a weed grower living in the basement, says no, because Martini’s a bad dude who did bad things and is getting what he deserves. It feels like cruelty on the grower’s part, like the movie wanted me to think, “Wow! What a terrible human being!” And, sure, that’s not a great look for the character, but he was right. Plus, the entire movie is about how terrible Martini is at paying back his debts. The grower has no obligation to give his landlord thousands of dollars (that he’d probably never see again) for any reason. As a person who doesn’t want to see anyone’s daughter get eaten by dogs, I wanted him to help, but I really can’t blame the guy for saying no.
And maybe I wouldn’t have felt that way were it not for Cash Only‘s biggest problem: It is anchored around a performance that never quite clicks. Everything about Nickola Shreli’s performance just feels the slightest bit off. The words are fine (and written by Shreli, which is interesting), but there’s a disconnect between the words and the voice at times, and there’s almost always a disconnect between the voice and the body. This is especially true near the end, where Shreli’ lack of affect becomes downright bizarre as it’s played against an admittedly over-the-top caricature of an Eastern European mob boss. This scene, which I’m fairly sure was supposed to inspire tension, merely elicits confusion, because everything is in place… but it doesn’t quite work. Parts of it do, but the overall effect is just kind of flat. There’s yelling and screaming and barking, but it’s – to quote people smarter than me quoting Hamlet – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But it goes beyond the narrative into the production itself. It doesn’t feel motivated. Take the camerawork: I like handheld camera movement. I use it a lot in my own projects, because I think it can be extremely effective at adding a sense of urgency to a moment or giving the whole moment an air of instability. And, given its sequence of events, it makes sense that Cash Only is a film that heavily utilizes handheld camera work. There are a lot of shaky shots, sharp pans, etc. But the problem is that there is a fine line between Effective and Exhausting, and Cash Only doesn’t walk it so well. Sometimes the intensity of the movement felt unmotivated; other times, particularly during runs, it felt like the operator forgot they were supposed to be pointing the camera at something in the first place. It’s just shake for the sake of shake.
And that’s what this movie is, really. Shake for the sake of it. Story for the sake of it. Action for the sake of it. Cash Only isn’t bad or anything, and there are worse ways you could spend 88 minutes, but it’s not particularly good either, and there are a whole lot of better ones too. Like rewatching Taken. Yeah, just do that instead.