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You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Movie

Den of Thieves
(2018)

 

I’d heard this was a shameless Heat rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum. So maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but Den of Thieves is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can’t even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box, and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Part of that final-hurdle falter is simply that O’Shea Jackson Jr, capable as he is, is no Kevin Spacey. Which I’m sure he’ll be relieved to hear. When it comes to donning a fake beard and approximating an English accent, as he’s required to in order to set up his next job, this master planner isn’t going to convince anyone who isn’t both partially sighted and in desperate need of a hearing aid.

Still, The Usual Suspects sleight of narrative performed by writer-director Christian Gudegast (Paul Scheuring also gets a story credit) is an appealing one in basic form, and at least explains why Jackson Jr’s Donnie Wilson was being trusted with not only getaway driving, but also the key moves within the Federal Reserve building.

That central heist delivers the more impressive narrative fake outs, however, via the magician’s trick of misdirecting your audience. In this case, it’s robbing a savings and loan, waiting for the cops to arrive, and escaping via the sewers to enact the main affair while demands are slowly being met. Gudegast doesn’t have a Michael Mann budget for enormous set pieces – or, let’s face it, the elegance – but what he has, he uses incredibly well.

He’s also aided immensely by Pablo Schreiber as Ray Merrimen, the leader of the crew and presumed brains behind the operation. Schreiber’s a standout – or high point – in whatever he appears, from The Wire to 13 Hours to American Gods, but this is just the kind of magnetic antagonist that could catapult him to proper leads (although, I suspect he’s too much of a character actor to take to standard hero offers). There isn’t a lot to Merrimen, but Schreiber inhabits him so fully, there seems like more.

I say antagonist, but that’s only by dint of profession. He’s a lot more sympathetic than our hero, scuzzy, bedraggled, wife-beater-sporting scumbag Big Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler). Nick’s the head of Major Crimes, and out to make Al Pacino’s Heat character seem like a boy scout. He’s an altogether unpleasant guy, and not just because he’s prone to picking the one blood-unsplattered donut from a crime scene following a particularly heavy night (“You just threw a donut in the hot zone!” yells the FBI ballbreaker who comes to begrudgingly respect his methods).

Nick’s an apha bully, a cheating husband, and carries around a general air of seedy repulsiveness (you expect his kids to shrink from his embrace with a “Daddy, you smell bad!”). Butler’s a decent actor, but not such a charisma machine that he can make Nick likeable. That’s an imbalance that makes the movie more effective, though (one wonders how many rough edges will be worn off for the sequel).

Gudegast builds his plot around incidents that would usually seem like holes or flaws: how easy it is for Nick’s team to pick up Merrimen’s trail, and to utilise Donnie as an informant. How Merrimen doesn’t take it out on Donnie when he learns about this. The use of unreliable narrator and flashbacks within flashbacks provide ample room for inconsistency, but I have a feeling the entirety of the deal would begin to disintegrate on revisit, be it in terms of simple perspective or the number of things that have to go exactly right for Donnie’s plan to play out (at the same time, that’s pretty much an inevitability with such twist narratives).

Instead of cat-and-muse (and mutual surveillance) culminating in a coffee, Nick and Merrimen show their cards at a shooting range (Merrimen’s got more firepower and surer aim). There’s even an imitation of the Pacino-De Niro climactic goodbye (“Don’t do it” says Nick, knowing Merrimen earlier promised “I ain’t cuffing up“). If there isn’t the mutual respect between the two found in Mann’s crime classic, that’s okay again; we’ve come close enough to a copy as it is.

Execution-wise, the highlight is the Fed heist, delivered by Gudigan for maximum tension, but the shootout in a traffic jam – one might reasonably expect Nick to lose his badge for that kind of behaviour, but one might reasonably expect him to have lost it long before the start of the movie – is pitch perfect also. The accompanying Cliff Martinez score is very much in a “give me something like Heat” mode, steeped in Moby-esque urban ambience but rising to the requirements of tension and firefights when called upon.

There’s a supporting ensemble, of course, but these players are less prolific; the best known among them, 50 Cent, is exactly as good as he ever was (to be fair to everyone else, they’re all much better than him). Mainly, this is a first-rate calling card from Gudegast the director (he previously penned the execrable London Has Fallen amongst four others, so I won’t lay that wholly at his door), and he’ll surely be ushered into the big leagues in no time.

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