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

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

Duffy. That old tangerine hipster.

Duffy (1968) (SPOILERS) It’s appropriate that James Coburn’s title character is repeatedly referred to as an old hipster in Robert Parrish’s movie, as that seemed to be precisely the niche Coburn was carving out for himself in the mid to late 60s, no sooner had Our Man Flint made him a star. He could be found partaking in jaundiced commentary on sexual liberation in Candy, falling headlong into counter culture in The President’s Analyst , and leading it in Duffy . He might have been two decades older than its primary adherents, but he was, to repeat an oft-used phrase here, very groovy. If only Duffy were too.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa