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

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

Never lose any sleep over accusations. Unless they can be proved, of course.

Strangers on a Train (1951) (SPOILERS) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

You’re easily the best policeman in Moscow.

Gorky Park (1983) (SPOILERS) Michael Apted and workmanlike go hand in hand when it comes to thriller fare (his Bond outing barely registered a pulse). This adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel – by Dennis Potter, no less – is duly serviceable but resolutely unremarkable. William Hurt’s militsiya officer Renko investigates three faceless bodies found in the titular park. It was that grisly element that gave Gorky Park a certain cachet when I first saw it as an impressionable youngster. Which was actually not unfair, as it’s by far its most memorable aspect.

I don’t like fighting at all. I try not to do too much of it.

Cuba (1979) (SPOILERS) Cuba -based movies don’t have a great track record at the box office, unless Bad Boys II counts. I guess The Godfather Part II does qualify. Steven Soderbergh , who could later speak to box office bombs revolving around Castro’s revolution, called Richard Lester’s Cuba fascinating but flawed. Which is generous of him.