Review: Gerard Butler’s “Den of Thieves” is a Stupid and Sleazy Breath of Fresh Air During Oscar Season

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50 Cent doing the best acting of his life by making sure the newspaper isn’t upside down.

Kevin: Do you love Michael Mann’s 1995 cops-and-robbers classic “Heat”? Do you sometimes want to experience “Heat,” but you don’t have the time or energy to get wrapped up in its densely layered themes or three-hour runtime? Well good news, because now there is “Den of Thieves,” the movie you can put on in the future when you are in the mood for “Heat,” but don’t want to actually watch “Heat”:

(Major spoilers to follow)

In case you haven’t caught on from that synopsis or 100 percent of the reviews, yes “Den of Thieves” is such a blatant copycat of “Heat” that I’m surprised Mann hasn’t sued for royalties yet, but you know what, I’m totally fine with that. If we are going to be bombarded with the same comic book movie every three months then I’m cool with getting a lesser version of “Heat” every 20 years or so, especially if it is as entertainingly sleazy and amoral as “Den of Thieves.”

For one thing, this is the kind of movie in which characters are all bearded and covered in tattoos, look like they are pumped full of steroids, hang out in strip clubs, drink nothing but whiskey out of the bottle, and probably have Hepatitis C, and those are just the heroes! It’s also a movie that seems like it was not only just made for men, but for men who hate all women after going through their third divorce. Seriously, I think the only female characters of note in “Den of Thieves” are Gerard Butler’s angry wife and the stripper girlfriend of the bad guy who Gerard sleeps with (more on that later). I’ll crib a line I used in our Round Table of another misogynistic action classic – “The Last Boy Scout” – and say that “Den of Thieves” doesn’t just fail the Bechdel test, it crumples it up and wipes its ass with it.

Speaking of Butler, I really can’t say enough about how great he is in this. He’s an unapologetically macho and belligerent alpha male whose biceps are as big as his gut, and he’s either drunk or hung over in nearly every scene. And that’s not even his character, that’s just Gerard! In the same way that, as Mike pointed out in our Round Table, “Action Jackson” probably made Vanity’s character into a heroin addict to account for the fact that Vanity actually was addicted to heroin at the time, “Den of Thieves” has Gerard’s character constantly drinking and surrounded by hot skanks, because I think we all assume that’s how Gerard lives his life, and that’s why we love him.

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They even have one of his fellow cops remark about how bad he looks at the beginning, even though he looks exactly the same as when he was playing the world’s most brilliant scientist in “Geostorm” (which obviously made a mistake thinking it could keep Gerard on a leash when filming in New Orleans). Either way, as soon as his character Big Nick shows up at a crime scene full of dead bodies and eats a doughnut from off the ground, you know that Gerard is gonna be fun to watch in every scene. It’s the kind of memorable performance that makes the difference between a B-movie co-starring 50 Cent that goes straight to VOD, or a B-movie that co-stars 50 Cent and outgrosses a number of Best Picture contenders at the box office, as “Den of Thieves” is currently doing.

Now getting back to the film’s rather obvious similarity to “Heat,” I’ll say that another thing I appreciated about “Den of Thieves” is that it fully embraces every cliché that we have come to love from these kinds of macho crime dramas, rather than thinking it’s clever by subverting those expectations (you hear that Rian Johnson?). For instance, here are just a few of the standard tropes that occur during the film:

– Opening armored car heist in which the masked criminals work with military precision and keep checking their watches because they know they have exactly 27.5 seconds before the cops show up.

– Operation goes sideways when one of the criminals has to shoot a guard who either was going for or appeared to be going for his gun.

– Back at the drop point, head criminal chews out the shooter for potentially screwing up their operation and bringing the heat on them.

– At the crime scene, top cop shows up and we all know he’s awesome because he looks like he’s been living out of his car. Says some version of “These guys were pros/these guys were good/these guys knew what they were doing,” before insulting a rival on the force who we immediately hate because he’s dressed in a suit and probably doesn’t routinely violate people’s civil rights.

– Cop returns home to find his wife has left him/is in the process of leaving him and taking the kids because she thought her alcoholic super-driven cop husband, who may or may not also be Gerard Butler, was somehow going to be staying home and watching reruns of “Modern Family” every night.

– Cop gets served with divorce papers. Cop later confronts his wife with divorce papers and intimidates whatever pencil-necked guy she is dating.

– Criminals all gather together on a construction site to look at the place they are going to rob, while their leader explains all the obstacles they are going to have to overcome to rob it.

– Someone tells cop that he and his adversary are not that different.

Before I go further, Mike you are a connoisseur of movies like “Heat” and “To Live and Die in L.A.,” so since you have also seen “Den of Thieves,” I’ll let you throw out some more clichés from those flicks that we get to see here.

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Mike: It would be easier to list all the various tropes from those movies that “Den of Thieves” DOESN’T deploy, but I’ll just bring up a few more off the top of my head:

– Cops run surveillance on criminals while criminals run counter-surveillance on cops.

– Cops and criminals apparently eat at the same restaurant with their families.

– Head cop and head criminal share a solo scene where no violence occurs (like the Pacino and De Niro diner scene, only way, way, way worse).

– Criminals won’t hesitate to use automatic weapons in a pinch.

– One of the criminals performs a very impressive and very quick speed-reload like Val Kilmer in “Heat.” Only in Val’s case it’s completely warranted since he is under fire, while in “Den of Thieves” it’s so the criminal can fire at a patrol car that didn’t even realize what was happening and was already shot to shit.

– Criminals detonate a bomb taped to a large jug of liquid inside their getaway car to destroy any DNA evidence.

– Head criminal would rather die than go to jail, and of course he tells his cop adversary at the end, “I told you I wasn’t going back (to jail)” as he’s dying from a bullet wound.

– Everyone, good guys and bad guys, are all extremely dedicated to their jobs.

– Head cop and criminal were both in the military.

– One of the cops is killed immediately at the start of the climactic shootout. Head cop doesn’t have time to dwell on it, as there is still a job to do.

– Not a trope, but there’s a character named “Bosco” in both “Heat” and “Den of Thieves,” which I must assume is yet another nod just in case you didn’t realize you were watching a remake.

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If there is one big difference though between “Heat” and “Den of Thieves,” it is the presence of O’Shea Jackson’s character, Donnie. Imagine this: you’ve just watched three hours of “Heat,” Elliot Goldenthal’s brilliant score is in full crescendo, Neil MacCauley is dying on the airport tarmac, while Vincent Hanna holds his hand and watches him slowly slip off into an unknown and terrifying eternity. Only instead of fading to black after this perfect conclusion, the movie keeps going and magically whisks you away to foggy old London, where in “Den of Thieves” we find out that Donnie has somehow managed to outsmart about 900 people and make off with every single penny of the robbery loot that cost at least eight poor bastards their lives. Makes you wonder why someone who is such a genius couldn’t just study a newspaper and play the stock market and make himself rich that way.

That’s right, in “Den of Thieves” O’Shea Jackson Jr. is basically Keyser Söze, only this supposed surprise doesn’t come as any surprise at all. In a better movie he should be the last person you would ever suspect, but if you have even half your brain working while watching this you’ll wonder why is he here? Why do they keep cutting to him at random moments while he’s doing nothing? Why is he the one they choose to shimmy through an oversized air duct in the Federal Reserve when he’s a big fat dude? For that matter, why is there an air duct big enough for a man to fit through in a room full of money inside the “most secure building in California” anyway?

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Why does that duct lead directly into the men’s room? Why does Donnie need to get a job at a Chinese restaurant just to impersonate a food delivery man? Why would that restaurant hire a non-Asian delivery man in the first place? Why was there a scene with head criminal Merrimen (Pablo Schrieber) giving Donnie a machine gun and a quick lesson on gun safety, when he would never be carrying a gun? That was only a small fraction of the multitude of questions I asked myself while watching “Den of Thieves.”

Now strange as this comparison may seem, I’m going to make it anyway. I once saw an episode of “Full House” where Michelle Tanner kept trying to cook meals for her family. She made “Pudding Surprise,” a chocolate pudding filled with Velveeta cheese and olives. She made Oreo ice cream, only it had a can of tuna in it. Finally, Uncle Jesse tells her to stop combining food. Make pudding, make ice cream, make macaroni and cheese, but don’t combine them or it will suck. I wish director Christian Gudegast would have watched that same episode, because he made himself a big old pot of chocolate pudding with cheese, olives, ice cream, and tunafish and called it “Den of Thieves,” and I ate that shit.

Having said all that, yes this was 100% a man’s movie. There was so much testosterone in it that I went into the theater clean shaven, and walked out with a full beard, an eye patch, and 26 pounds of extra muscle! The few female characters in it were completely useless, and the movie would have been exactly the same without them. They were situated there basically to avoid some kind of political controversy due the crappy society we live in now that says there needs to be a strong female character woven into any story, no matter how fucking out of place she’d be. In this regard the film excelled.

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Kevin: Yeah for the first hour or so I thought this was shaping up to be a surprise pick for my Best of 2018 list: the gunshots are loud, the dudes are unapologetically macho and aggresive, the clichés are embraced without shame, and the whole movie feels like it should be viewed in a strip club rather than a theater. Yet just when it should have really gone to the next level – the third act heist – I kind of started getting antsy for it to wrap up, maybe because the big set-piece is less of a bullet-riddled bank robbery and more of an “Ocean’s Eleven”-type caper.

(We do finally get another well-done shootout at the end on a jammed-up freeway, and I enjoyed the numerous shots of Big Nick and his men all dressed up in body armor and carrying military grade weapons, telling various drivers to get down in their cars, as if their Honda CRVs are going keep them from getting turned into Swiss cheese by Merrimen’s SAW M249.)

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Now going back to the heist, am I wrong Mike or was a key component of the bad guys’ plan based on the expectation that the two stereotypical sassy black ladies introduced earlier who work at the Fed would just happen to order takeout from the Chinese place that Donnie was working for on that exact day? What if one of them was sick? What if they brought lunch from home? What if they weren’t in the mood for Chinese? And how long did Donnie expect them not to notice the food he gave them had been sitting in the air vent above men’s shitter for like four days? And why did we need to see one of the ladies alerting security, and the security guy going after Donnie, since nothing comes from that?

Also, so I guess Donnie is living in London now and working at yet another bar that happens to be close to another place he is planning to rob. And was I mistaken or did he also adopt a British accent at the end? Either way, London seems like not a great place for a wanted American criminal to be hiding out, fake Cockney accent or not.

Now if 50 Cent turned out to be the brilliant mastermind behind this intricate double-cross I think we would all be shocked, mainly because we’d also be shocked if 50 could name the current Vice President. I’d ask why he was in this movie, but then again I’d ask why he is in any movie since he couldn’t even play himself convincingly in his own life story, and he’s gotten no better as an actor since then. He always has a look of confusion on his face, he’s incredibly unconvincing as a tough guy despite having been shot like 19 times in real life, and he can’t even die in a memorable fashion in “Den of Thieves.”

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I seriously couldn’t tell at first if he had been shot or just tripped on his shoelaces at the end, and I had no idea what his dying last words were, although I also had no idea what his first words were either, or any of his words in between. All I know is whatever poor bastard has to do the closed captioning for this movie should get some serious overtime pay, because if it were me I would just throw my hands up and write “Unintelligible” every time he opens his mouth.

By the way, not only do both Big Nick and Merrimen share military backgrounds, but apparently they also both played high school football in the Los Angeles area back in the day. Maybe I’m mistaken, but I also thought I heard them say that their respective schools were big rivals. Again, I’m not sure why this was even brought up, but it would have been great if the cops and criminals ended up settling their differences in a “Best of Times”-type rematch of some big Homecoming game that ended with a controversial call, leading the various characters to turn either good or evil depending on who won.

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Finally, “Den of Thieves” does have something I’ve never seen in one of these movies before: the hero trying to get into the bad guy’s head by screwing his trashy stripper girlfriend. Not only that, Big Nick makes sure to stick around so that Merrimen can catch him coming out of the bathroom, after probably wiping his johnson on Merrimen’s engraved hand towel. Of course like everything else in this movie there is a bit of a twist to this as well, but considering he probably got herpes from this chick, I admire Big Nick’s dedication to his job (actually I feel like I got herpes just from watching that scene).

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Mike: Yeah based on the official poster for the film above, you would think that 50 Cent is the leader of this gang, when in reality he has less than 25 lines of spoken dialogue. But hey at least they are all real memorable lines, such as: “Let me holla’ at ya’,” “Hand me my vest,” and “… ‘mumble sound’ …”

And yes, Donnie does have a British accent at the end, because as we now know, part of his grand plan is to get a job at whatever bar is closest to something he wants to rob, work there for a few years talking to every customer, and then eventually tricking a group of other people into taking it down for him.

Even with all that stupidity, it was still a very entertaining movie, and I don’t always go to the movies because I want to think about stuff or contemplate my worth in the universe. Sometimes I just want to see someone get shot in the head! But in “Den of Thieves” even that was a bit of a letdown, as I thought there was a lot of room for violence they did not exploit. By comparison there were a lot more threats of violence then there was actual violence. It was kind of like watching a bar fight that never manages to move past the shoving stage.

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Kevin: Yes for all its flaws, I’ll just say that there was something almost nostalgic and reassuring about sitting in a theater and watching a movie like “Den of Thieves” when every other screen around me was showing Oscar-bait like “The Shape of Water” or “Lady Bird.” It’s not trying to make a statement about the power of love with a fish man or celebrating a teen girl’s coming of age; it just wants to entertain you with the story of a bunch of big burly dudes shooting each other and occasionally getting drunk with whores. Its complete lack of redeeming value is actually almost redeeming, and if that’s not the kind of thing that wins Oscars, then it should at least be appreciated at the multiplex nowadays.

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One thought on “Review: Gerard Butler’s “Den of Thieves” is a Stupid and Sleazy Breath of Fresh Air During Oscar Season

  1. Pingback: News of a “Den of Thieves” Sequel Has Kevin Excited, and Mike … Considerably Less So | Tough Guy Digest

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