Tuesday, January 23, 2018

In Theaters: DEN OF THIEVES (2018)

(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Christian Gudegast. Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Meadow Williams, Brian Van Holt, Evan Jones, Eric Braeden, Dawn Olivieri, Jordan Bridges, Mo McRae, Maurice Compte, Cooper Andrews, Kaiwi Lyman, Sonya Balmores, Oleg Taktarov. (R, 140 mins)

If you're a fan of the films of Michael Mann, you probably still don't love them nearly as much as DEN OF THIEVES writer/director Christian Gudegast does. Gudegast co-wrote LONDON HAS FALLEN, which is probably where he managed to secure the services of star and producer Gerard Butler for his directing debut, an epic L.A. heist saga so indebted to a certain Mann masterpiece that brought together Al Pacino and Robert De Niro that an old friend of mine has been enthusiastically referring to DEN OF THIEVES as "DIPSHIT HEAT" (© David James Keaton) from the moment he first saw the trailer. DIPSH...er, I mean, DEN OF THIEVES is shamelessly derivative not just of HEAT, but with its Cliff Martinez score doing its damnedest to be as Tangerine Dreamy as possible, it's also got a lot of THIEF as well, not to mention William Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and a third-act curveball that takes things head-on into Keyser Soze territory. In short, DEN OF THIEVES is a greatest hits version of Gudegast's Blu-ray collection, and while it doesn't have an original thought in its head, it's a fast 140 minutes, and Butler as Russell Crowe as Mel Gibson is a blast as the ethically-challenged "Big Nick" O'Brien, the badass head of an elite Major Crimes unit of the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept who--*SPOILER*--plays by his own rules.

After a shootout resulting from the hijacking of an empty armored car, O'Brien can't figure out the motive. That is, until a clue leads him to Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr), who turns out to be the wheelman for Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), the leader of a crew of skilled, coordinated bank robbers, all ex-military with Kevlar masks and body armor and high-tech assault rifles. O'Brian has a backlog of unsolved robberies with similar MOs and unusual circumstances going back to 2004. He's convinced this is Merriman's crew, as he's just been paroled after ten years, during which time no heists have displayed the tell-tale signs of the unsolved jobs. O'Brien uses Donnie as an informer, but it doesn't accomplish much, since he's just the wheelman and he's kept largely in the dark on the intricate planning. Merriman and his right-hand man Levi (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) are plotting their most outlandish job yet: robbing the Federal Reserve in downtown Los Angeles, a building where every inch of the premises is under surveillance and only authorized security and armored car personnel are allowed in. The plan? Get in to steal $30 million in old bills being taken out of circulation--thereby making them untraceable--before they're put in the shredder. O'Brien doesn't really hide the fact that he's on to Merriman and his gang, even showing up to harass and embarrass them as they dine at a Japanese restaurant ("The food here sucks...I'm just here for the ass!" O'Brien bellows in DIPSHIT HEAT's version of this), so Merriman changes the game, plotting a decoy heist to throw O'Brien and his guys off their trail. Of course, things don't quite go as planned.

DEN OF THIEVES bulldozes forward in constant motion, often glossing over the specifics--I'm still not sure what initially leads O'Brien to Donnie, and even as it's happening inside the Reserve, the heist itself makes little sense--but as a scuzzy guilty pleasure, it's undeniably entertaining. Much of that is thanks to Butler, who plays O'Brien as an uncouth, corrupt lout of an antihero who's frequently more unhinged than the perps he's trying to nail. He's introduced hungover and looking like shit, surveying a murder scene outside a coffee shop and helping himself to a donut out of the box dropped by one of the victims. Like most movie cops of this sort, he answers to no one, he straddles the line between cop and criminal, and he does what's necessary to get under his target's skin, like screwing Merriman's stripper girlfriend (Meadow Williams) and then engaging in a shirtless, morning-after staredown in her apartment when Merriman shows up unexpectedly. Schreiber (younger half-brother of Liev, and best known for his roles on THE WIRE, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and as a recurring Olivia Benson nemesis on LAW & ORDER: SVU) is all stoic and barely-contained fury as Merriman, and with Butler's scenery-chewing, their relationship is much like that of Pacino and De Niro in HEAT and William Petersen and Willem Dafoe in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (with Williams functioning as the Darlanne Fluegel stand-in). The difference between then and now is that today, everything requires a twist ending, so what better route to take than cribbing from THE USUAL SUSPECTS in a convoluted finale that probably takes a couple of run-throughs to fully comprehend? The Reserve heist not only involves a) a decoy robbery, but also b) the improbability of heavily armed security personnel letting a delivery guy out when they never saw him come in, as well as c) a take-out order of rotten Chinese food. Don't ask. Gudegast gets the HEAT love going right away with a huge opening shootout, plus there's a later nod to the SICARIO traffic jam shootout. Is it fair to call this DIPSHIT HEAT? Yeah, probably, even if Gudegast doesn't let his tough guy dialogue ever get quite as magical as LONDON HAS FALLEN's "Why don't you pack up your shit and move back to Fuckheadistan?" But it's diverting enough and it's the kind of movie you'll end up watching until the end when you're channel-surfing and stumble on it, which is really the best compliment you can pay to something like this. Plus, Gudegast does earn some points for getting daytime soap icon Eric Braeden back on the big screen for just the third time in 20 years--probably not difficult since Braeden is his dad--in a small role as a bar owner named "Ziggy Zerhusen." Top that, Michael Mann!

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