Skip to main content

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves
(2018)

(SPOILERS) 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, talented 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 being slowly 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). He'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), and 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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Den of Thieves is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time! With the plethora of BS Hollywood is pumping out now it was so refreshing to see something worth watching!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…