Have you ever seen a sprawling, nearly 2-hour-plus epic about a gang of bank robbers in Los Angeles, the special police unit trying to bust them, the parallels between the groups that make them as bad as each other and give them a macho bond, the chance public encounters they have in neutral spaces before the robbery, and the absurdly high capacity shootouts they have in broad daylight among the public… but that is only heavily influenced by Michael Mann, not actually directed by him? Oh yeah, it sounds like you saw DEN OF THIEVES too. It was okay though, right?
The thieves are led by ex-Marine Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber, 13 HOURS) – who looks a little like a Christian Bale character, but feels more like Bodhi in the POINT BREAK remake – with goons including Evan Jones (Cheddar Bob from 8 MILE), 50 Cent (Young Caesar from GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube from STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON).
50 gets almost nothing to do outside of remixing the infamous BAD BOYS II terrorizing-the-daughter’s-prom-date scene. Instead of pulling a gun and threatening to rape him as in the Bay movie, he just brings him into a garage and talks to him surrounded by like ten grimacing dudes who look like extras who would be lifting weights in a prison movie. It’s a successful joke as far as that “my daughter’s virginity is my most cherished property” stuff goes. But to me the funniest part of 50 being in this is to think that he couldn’t bring his SHARK TALE/RIGHTEOUS KILL/FREELANCERS/LAST VEGAS co-star Robert DeNiro with him because he was already in this kind of thing once before.
Jackson’s getaway driver Donnie is the eminently likable audience identification character, and he gets made by the cops and abducted after a shift at his straight job as a bartender. He comes to in some kind of flophouse surrounded by tattooed muscle dudes who are technically police officers but identify and operate as a gang. They have some hookers there like it’s the hotel party in VAMPIRES but they seem to be there just to make Donnie shit himself when they are suddenly told to they have to leave.
The leader, Big Nick (Gerard Butler, DRACULA 2000, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE) is a dick-swinging swagger monster made out of sunglasses, brown leather jackets and a toothpick. He chokes Donnie to get information and tells him “You’re not the bad guys, we are,” which is correct. I am definitely rooting for Donnie here.
I like that Jackson was introduced to us playing AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted himself, The (gentleman) Ya Love to Hate, The Wrong (fellow) to Fuck Wit, the crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, a.k.a. his dad, and his resemblance worked for him well there, but with this and INGRID GOES WEST he’s already established a place for himself playing funny, regular dudes more laid back than Cube even played in FRIDAY, let alone his regular persona. When he first took his gas mask off after the opening armored car robbery I wasn’t sure I could accept him in this type of role, and then it turns out to be one that takes advantage of his seeming like a dude you know from work to make him sympathetic and out of his league when he’s trapped between these two groups of killers.
Nick seems like the biggest piece of shit of all these guys, but we see the most of his home life. I had heard that DEN OF THIEVES was enjoyable as a trashy ripoff of HEAT, but honestly its aspirations seem pretty high-minded to me. Otherwise why would it have such a long scene about Nick coming home and being confronted by evidence of cheating, then trying unsuccessfully to smooth things over as his wife (Dawn Olivieri, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER) wakes up their confused daughters and leaves with them. Or the other scene where he goes to her house to drunkenly bully her new boyfriend and another friend before signing the divorce papers (a making-a-scene scene that makes us reconsider any pity we might’ve had for him ruining his marriage in the earlier incident). These scenes are well executed, and I was happy to see Olivieri again after being impressed by her in the not-great obscurity SUPREMACY.
My favorite part there is the guy, apparently a family friend who is over having dinner with the wife and friends but still trying to act friendly to Nick. He’s tall but skinnier than Nick and both his “I think it’s time to go” be-nice bouncer methods and his physical intimidation keep failing to get this belligerent asshole to leave. It’s good, and it’s not what I bargained for.
Not that there aren’t signs of a typical dumb movie. When Merrimen tells the crew his plan to rob the Federal Reserve, he makes an OCEAN’S ELEVEN style “let me lay out for you just how impossible it is to break into this place that I’m about to ask you to break into” speech. “Stand across the street and stare at it for two minutes, you’ll have security on your ass” he says as they all stand staring at it from across the street and not having security on their ass (he was referring to the other street).
When they execute their MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE heist plan, of course it hinges on there being human-sized vents that Donny can use to climb from room to room and into the bathroom.
Worst of all, there’s an FBI guy who hassles Nick about being a terrible, corrupt cop (he even calls him a “bad lieutenant”), and then the movie emasculates him by making him an uptight vegan and offerer of “organic” chewing gum. This would be so much better if he was the normal person’s perspective, not a bad guy from an ’80s fraternity comedy. I mean, he is 100% correct about Nick. And the rest of the time it seems like the movie is aware of this.
But for the most part first-time writer-director Christian Gudegast (previously the screenwriter of A MAN APART and LONDON HAS FALLEN) keeps it at a David Ayer or greater level of decency. He allows time to breathe and build the atmosphere of Los Angeles with nice aerial shots (though the rest was shot in Atlanta!). The shootouts are well done (in the modern quasi-realistic style, no Woo stuff) with a heavy emphasis on the sound of shell cases clinking on concrete as they pour out like a spilled bucket of ping pong balls. The big one takes place in gridlock, so it plays like a tribute to both L.A. traffic and the movie SICARIO. A couple familiar MMA faces show up – a cameo by Michael Bisping (xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE) and a small role for Oleg “The Russian Bear” Taktarov (AIR FORCE ONE, 15 MINUTES, ROLLERBALL, BAD BOYS II, NATIONAL TREASURE, MIAMI VICE, BOBBY Z, ROCKAWAY, PREDATORS), who I’m always excited to see – but be advised there’s no martial arts here.
Really, the problem with DEN OF THIEVES is that HEAT exists, and it fails to convince me that it’s different enough to not be compared. So why would you watch this if you haven’t worn out HEAT and L.A. TAKEDOWN? But aside from the lack-of-reason-to-exist thing I kind of like that it exists.
SPECIAL SPOILER SECTION
And if you’re looking for some silliness, you will be happy about the USUAL SUSPECTS inspired reveal at the end, which is goofy but satisfying in how it puts a likable character on top. And since they’re doing a sequel it’s a good ending as far as setting up a totally different situation and setting than the first one, with a potential for more Bisping and Taktarov. If they play their cards right this could launch a fun series of snowballing ridiculousness like STEP UP or THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.