Regardless of the quality of his films, I’ve always been a fan of Gerard Butler. Yeah sure, last year’s Geostorm was about as successful as a sunbathing session during monsoon season. Yet films like 300, The Ugly Truth and a personal favourite, Olympus Has Fallen, go underrated I feel, in their respective genres.
So I was excited to see his new film, Den of Thieves. With the screenwriter for London Has Fallen attached to direct and a manifestly macho supporting cast made up with the likes of O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, it looked set to fall into the collection of enjoyable Gerard genre films.
And I’m pleased to report that it does: Den of Thieves is a tense and thoughtfully planned thriller that isn’t afraid to go a little dark and gritty when called for. Sure, there are the obvious comparisons to Heat, any bank heist film will elicit that response. But while it undoubtedly lacks its refined quality, Den of Thieves bares more in common with the patient build-up and intense execution of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario.
The set-up is deliberately familiar (Den of Thieves cannot be praised for narrative originality, unfortunately). Based in Los Angeles, a gang of bank robbers – Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), Levi (50 Cent), Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Bosco (Evan Jones) among others – set themselves the daunting task of raiding the Federal Reserve Bank. Their rivals? A ruthless unit of police officers, led by Detective Nick “Big Nick” O’Brien (Gerard Butler), who will willingly bend the rules in order to take down the criminals they’re after.
Again, it’s a safe narrative framework to construct a film from. But first-time director Christian Gudegast doesn’t phone in his debut by sticking to what’s safe. Rather than offer an atypical action flick featuring the clichéd comedic camaraderie that the genre has become known for – films such as David Ayer’s Bright and Zack Snyder’s Justice League spring to mind – Gudegast dives into an authentically brutal reality, unafraid to present the audience with characters that aren’t inherently likeable. There’s no clear divide here, no binary to separate the good from the bad: in one memorable scene, Butler’s Big Nick reminds Donnie that the cops, the officers you think are serving justice according to the rules, are actually ‘the bad guys’ who will stop at nothing in doing what needs to be done.
Of course it can come across as a little heavy-handed for a February action film. But I found it refreshing to have such a movie take itself seriously for a change, prepared to take an amoral stance on its protagonists and their actions.
The best display of this approach is in the handling of Gerard Butler’s character, Big Nick. What seemed to be the stereotypical ‘big, burly and bearded badass’ role that we’re used to seeing from Butler, instead morphs into something surprisingly nuanced. Faced with familial issues that are tied to his reckless attitude and impulsive bravado, Big Nick resembles the toxically masculine model made popular by the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the 80’s, brought down to the ground in a world that doesn’t play ball with those kinds of characteristics. Butler excels in adding layers to a character type he could play in his sleep and I think he should be commended for it.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. also demonstrates his developed skills as an actor, rising up from his scene-stealing star turn in Straight Outta Compton. The role of Donnie is a difficult one, forever on the fringes of turning one way or the other, by remaining loyal to his fellow felons or siding with the corrupt cops on his tail. But Jackson Jr. leaves us guessing and the film is all the better for it, calling for an unexpected elaborateness that I admired and appreciated.
Regrettably, the rest of the cast is given little, if anything to do with their respective parts. 50 Cent has one amusing moment, but is largely side-lined as the muscle-bound sidekick of gang leader Merrimen. And as Merrimen, Schreiber has minimal character maturity, left to serve as the ominous overlord of the operation, always teetering on the edge of a violent outburst.
It makes sense to focus on two lead protagonists – in this case, Nick and Donnie – as it has been the case for many of its heist-based predecessors: Heat honed in on the exploits of Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), as did Point Break with Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). It’s just a shame that a talented cast such as the one assembled in Den of Thieves, couldn’t be put to better use.
Overall though, Den of Thieves is a surprising success. The direction is invigoratingly controlled and focused in its treatment of action. In this day-and-age, shaky-cam and quick cuts seem to be the go-to method for filming fight sequences. But cinematographer Terry Stacey keeps it tightly framed and editor Joel Cox maintains a steady pace, a simple yet overwhelmingly effective technique that creates some truly standout stand-offs. The participants of said action sequences also deliver, bringing an authenticity to these moments that envelopes the audience in their situation.
Sure, the conclusion to the film feels rushed, with a finale that could even be described as a cop-out, if you’ll pardon the pun. Certain characters come and go without much context as to their motives. But the core elements all work in brilliant unison. Butler and Jackson Jr. are excellent and Gudegast is obviously game for pushing at the borders of crime film clichés. For this, Den of Thieves is worth a watch, especially for those Gerard Butler fans such as myself: it’s easily his best film in years.