Imagine a time-traveler who was only ever shown two films, both of them from the year 1995, being sent forward into the future so he could make a film in 2018. The only two films he has ever seen are Michael Mann’s Heat and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. His plan? Make one film that combines the two of them. The result? Den of Thieves.
Yikes. Yikes. Yikes.
Pauline Kael famously torched Dirty Harry when it was released, rejecting it as a right-wing fantasy. She called it “a kind of hardhat The Fountainhead,” and she also called it “a deeply immoral movie.” I cannot imagine the heart attack that Den of Thieves would give her if she had to sit through it. Gerard Butler, playing Russell Crowe playing Broderick Crawford, plays Nick Flanagan, the head of the special crimes unit in Los Angeles. He and his team of guys, including Not Blake Shelton, Smooth Guy, and The Edge from U2, are hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-fucking jerks who seem to have been given special license to do whatever they want, however they want, as movie cops typically are.
The problem with being glib about this is that we don’t live in a world where our relationship with the police is an easy one. It’s certainly not a binary “cops/good, criminals/bad” world, and police violence being tied to right-wing politics is starting to become a bigger story, as it’s clear there was a concentrated effort to turn many police departments into militarized white supremacy groups. For all of the hundreds of thousands of genuinely dedicated men and women around our country who joined the police force to protect and serve their communities, people who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way for everyone’s good, there are an unfortunately high number of people who hide behind the badge as a justification for violence and abuse. And when we reached a scene in this film where Butler’s character is trying to convince bartender Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to flip on the crew he’s working for, using a choke hold to make a point, I was done with this film as entertainment.
Sure, they pay lip service to showing how the job wears on these men and changes them, but (A) that’s a cliche and (B) this movie has no idea what it thinks about that. Ultimately, this is just good guys/bad guys, and the way everything is solved is by killing each other. Who can kill everyone first? The good guys or the bad guys? It’s the good guys? Yay! Might makes right! And, sure, they have to kill off everyone in both crews to get there, but it’s totally worth it!
Oh, wait, that’s not true, because the movie also wants to be a blow-your-mind thriller built around a big twist, but when I say that it is stolen from The Usual Suspects, I mean it is so shameless that I almost expected to see a character watching the film in the final scene. It is not out-of-nowhere, either, which is part of the problem. They drop their clues with all the grace of an elephant crapping in a shot glass, so when they get to the big reveal, I was impatient to the point of anger. Yes, yes, we get it. You’re stealing from another movie. Stop being so goddamn proud of yourself for it and just get on it with it already. Oh, really, he’s Keyser Soze? Great, I’m shocked. Can I go now?
Maybe that wouldn’t stand out so much if the movie weren’t equally obsessed with Mann’s seminal crime film. Lots of movies have stood in Heat’s shadow since it was released, including some of Mann’s own work, but, again, Christian Gudegast has zero shame about stealing from other filmmakers. As a writer, he’s cranked out such pulp as A Man Apart and London Has Fallen, but here he reveals that he isn’t exactly brimming over with his own ideas. He’s got Nick, Gerard Butler’s character, dealing with his own domestic problems even as he slowly but surely closes in on master thief Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) and his, er… merry men. The two crews are played in parallel for the entire movie, finally coming together when Merrimen makes his big play to rob the Federal Reserve in Los Angeles.
There are two big robbery sequences, one to open the film and one near the end, and both of them are directly influenced by the staging and shooting of the downtown robbery in Heat. They are incredibly violent, and again, I was reminded of how Kael points out the weird, ugly choice to open Dirty Harry with a dedication to the members of the California law enforcement community that had been killed in the line of duty. There are plenty of real cops who are killed in plenty of situations where they are doing good, but this is all too Grand Theft Auto to have the weight that Mann’s film had in 1995. I lived in LA when we had the bank robbery that inspired the shoot-out in his film, and it was shocking to see that footage, shot less than two miles from where I lived at the time. It should be shocking. It is an insane use of force, especially in a setting where people are simply out doing mundane things. The world that Den of Thieves posits is one where this sort of thing is routine and accepted, and while it is one of hundreds of action films that fails in the same way, that’s no reason to simply accept it as the way things work.
Well-shot, and featuring a pretty solid score by Cliff Martinez, Den of Thieves is irresponsible trash, and not only does it borrow egregiously from better films, it does so without any understanding of why those films were great, or why the things it steals worked in the first place. It is a childish and ugly movie, and an inauspicious debut for a filmmaker who will have to try harder if he ever hopes to have anything to actually say.
Running time: 90 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic