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

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…

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…

If a rat were to walk in here right now as I'm talking, would you treat it to a saucer of your delicious milk?

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
(SPOILERS) His staunchest fans would doubtless claim Tarantino has never taken a wrong step, but for me, his post-Pulp Fiction output had been either not quite as satisfying (Jackie Brown), empty spectacle (the Kill Bills) or wretched (Death Proof). It wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds that he recovered his mojo, revelling in an alternate World War II where Adolf didn’t just lose but also got machine gunned to death in a movie theatre showing a warmly received Goebbels-produced propaganda film. It may not be his masterpiece – as Aldo Raines refers to the swastika engraved on “Jew hunter” Hans Landa’s forehead, and as Tarantino actually saw the potential of his script – but it’s brimming with ideas and energy.

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

Hey, everybody. The bellboy's here.

Four Rooms (1995)
(SPOILERS) I had an idea that I’d only seen part of Four Rooms previously, and having now definitively watched the entire thing, I can see where that notion sprang from. It’s a picture that actively encourages you to think it never existed. Much of it isn’t even actively terrible – although, at the same time, it couldn’t be labelled remotely good– but it’s so utterly lethargic, so lacking in the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness that characterises these filmmakers at their best – and yes, I’m including Rodriguez, although it’s a very limited corner for him – that it’s very easy to banish the entire misbegotten enterprise from your mind.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

The adversary oft comes in the shape of a he-goat.

The Witch (2015)
(SPOILERS) I’m not the biggest of horror buffs, so Stephen King commenting that The Witchscared the hell out of me” might have given me pause for what was in store. Fortunately, he’s the same author extraordinaire who referred to Crimson Peak as “just fucking terrifying” (it isn’t). That, and that general reactions to Robert Eggers’ film have fluctuated across the scale, from the King-type response on one end of the spectrum to accounts of unrelieved boredom on the other. The latter response may also contextualise the former, depending on just what King is referring to, because what’s scary about The Witch isn’t, for the most part, scary in the classically understood horror sense. It’s scary in the way The Wicker Man is scary, existentially gnawing away at one through judicious martialling of atmosphere, setting and theme.


Indeed, this is far more impressive a work than Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which had hitherto been compared to The Wicker Man, succeeding admirably …