Christian Gudegast directs Gerard Butler, 50 Cent, and O'Shea Jackson in heist drama, DEN OF THIEVES
There is a danger that a film critic takes on when endeavoring to review any film releasing in the third week of January. Traditionally, this time of year is where studios dump their ill-conceived ideas to die, typically out of contractual obligation, resulting in some of the worst movies of the year. Not early enough to be considered for awards for the previous year, and far too early to be considered for the next, January movies are typically a mess of under-performing cinema that is not likely to draw a crowd at a time of year when consumers have just run out of disposable income and disposable time. Den of Thieves is a textbook case of the kind of film that gets lost in the January doldrums, and with good reason.
Gerard Butler plays "Big Nick", an LA County Sheriff with a bad attitude, who stumbles on a particularly well organized, but unexplained armored car heist that he can't just let go. Big Nick is an enigma, a goddamned mess of a man who messes around on his wife and breaks every rule in the book in pursuit of vengeance rather than justice. The ultimate renegade cop. Disrespected, with good reason, I might add, by the feds, Big Nick decides that this heist is his windmill, and he's gonna Don Quixote the shit out of it, no matter who goes down in the crossfire, and it's a goddamned mess to watch.
On the other side of this battle of wits is ex-military master thief Merriman (Pablo Schrieber), who has out-manned, outgunned, and outwitted Big Nick at every turn, but is still somehow the underdog in this story? It's hard to tell who to root for here. Nick has a badge, but Merriman is equally messed up as a human and arguably the more sympathetic character in the film. Through numerous convoluted machinations, they end up in a Mexican standoff that makes the climax from Heat look like a post-Black Lives Matter police training video on respectful criminal encounters, and all hell breaks loose.
The comparison to Michael Mann's modern overwrought masterpiece of cop/crook tête-à-tête is not unwarranted, or even unwelcome, I would imagine. Every inch of this film seems to scream, "SEE? We did an urban Heat! See what we did?!", right down to the public face-to-face conversations and the unbelievably irresponsible climax. The problem is that Den of Thieves, and debutante director Christian Gudegast, have no idea how to manage this kind of pathos in any believable, or even reasonably acceptable way.
I'm not saying that I think Gerard Butler or Gudegast are untalented, but they most definitely attempted to load this film down with far more gravitas than either was able to back up. Gudegast had previous scripted the ridiculously violent Butler sequel London Has Fallen and Vin Diesel's A Man Apart, which should give the viewer a decent idea of where his head was at going into Den of Thieves. Those films, both over-sized exaggerations of their subject matter, at least understood their place in the culture, where Den of Thieves practically begs to be taken seriously, a thing which no discerning viewer would possibly deign to do.
First piece of evidence that this film is truly attempting to transcend its pulpy genre is the overwhelming and downright exhausting 140 minute run time. Den of Thieves is an action film, the kind of film that should've have been somewhere between 80 and 100 minutes, tops. Cracking the two hour barrier is something we reserve for monster budget Marvel movies and the latest in the Fast and Furious series, apart from that, it is a terrible idea. Get in, blow shit up, get out. That should be the mantra of anyone attempting this kind of film, but in Den of Thieves it appears that the filmmakers, including producer - wait for it - Gerard Butler, wanted to say something here, but Den of Thieves is too bogged down in messy, inaccurate stereotypes and innumerable plot twists to care.
I have a lot of problems with this film, in case you hadn't noticed, but the one I find the most irritating is a gaffe that most people might fly right by. Big Nick and his crew in the sheriff's department all look exactly the same, apart from the token African-American, all dad-bodded up, messy beards flowing in the wind, neck tattoos blazing. They look like a lot of my friends who are southern California punk rockers from the '80s who grew up and are now old dads who skate on weekends when they don't have their kids and stand at the back of the club when their friends play reunion shows in bars that seat 75 people.
And you know what? I'm fine with the look. It's period accurate, I know a lot of people who look like that. However, to a person, every single person I know who looks like that spent the '80s getting the crap kicked out of them by cops on a weekly basis, so the idea that these chumps somehow miraculously decided to join the other side is goddamned ludicrous. These sheriffs are a fantasy.
The crooks, on the other hand, are pretty believable, apart from the fact that there is an unusually large percentage of the evil goons who seem to be Samoan - a weird way to be racist - they act and look almost exactly like the sheriffs, which I guess is the point? Merriman's crew is made up of himself, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson (who mumbles his way through this script like the pages were made of marbles), driver O'Shea Jackson, Jr. (Ingrid Goes West, Straight Outta Compton), and a whole mess of South Pacific islanders just looking for trouble. Racially diverse? Sure, but also hella racist at the same time.
While the writers and casting people were busy making sure that that all the colors of Benetton's rainbow were represented on screen, I guess they forgot to make one - just ONE - female character worth remembering. Now, before I am flayed, I get that this film is a "man's" movie, but women do occasionally grace this man's world and they are, without exception, portrayed as either shrews or whores. Big Nick's wife, for example, is played at such a high pitch by Dawn Olivieri that, even though she's obviously in the right in her decision to extricate herself from his life, she still manages to come of as a total bitch. 90% of the other women who even appear on screen are either strippers or hookers, and not the "heart of gold" kind. I'm really not the kind to beat the drum of equality in art, sometimes a story is better suited for a certain type of character, but there is a particularly egregious imbalance in Den of Thieves that is really hard not to call out.
If that wasn't enough, there is the climax of the film, which - spoiler alert - involves a major shootout between Nick and Merriman. This is what the audience has spent over two hours waiting for. This is what the audience has endured numerous eye-roll inducing plot twists for. This is the ride that make us buy the ticket. Then it happens, and all it is is a dumber, less concerned with collateral damage, louder version of Heat's far superior final shootout. In fact, at one point a member of one crew calls out that there are 20-30 cars -- cars in traffic being driven by regular Joes trying to get home from their jobs -- between the high powered fully-automatic weapons in car #1 and car #2. However, does that stop anyone from shooting thousands of rounds over, around, under, and through the cars of these poor commuters. No. Of course it doesn't, and yet not a single civilian fatality is shown or implied. This is Man of Steel level chaos, and it is brushed aside instantly.
Den of Thieves is dumb. But the problem is that the film doesn't know how dumb it is. It attempts to build up Butler as an anti-hero, a super-cop with a wonky conscience, when really he's just an animal who cares about no one but himself. There is no redemption in the film, which is - again - fine, but the film seems to think there is, which is infuriating. Add to all of this the fact that the film ends on one of the most ridiculous twists -- and nausea inducing cocked-up accents -- I've ever seen, and the whole thing crumbles like an under-cooked souffle. How do you under cook a two hour and twenty minute film? Ask the producers and director of Den of Thieves.
There are times when you watch a film and maybe it doesn't connect with you right away. That's fine, more than once I've walked out a film with middling thoughts, only to mull over as time passes and appreciate what I saw as larger than the sum of the parts I was considering the moment. On the other hand, there are films that may have seemed just so-so in the moment, but as time passes you grow to loathe them due to the multitude of missed opportunities, poor handling of sensitive, or even not so sensitive material, and, most frequently, their sheer laziness. Den of Thieves is the latter. Avoid.