You may be able to take the boy out of Paisley, but taking Paisley out of the boy proves harder. So it’s refreshing to see Gerard Butler back to his badass best as a swaggering douchebag cop taking the fight to a gang of swaggering douchebag bank robbers in screenwriter Christian Gudegast’s directorial debut Den Of Thieves, a jacked up heist thriller that plays like a swaggering douchebag Heat. After the ludicrous disappointment of 2017’s Geostorm, a film which fundamentally misunderstood Butler’s simple appeal, first by casting him as a scientist (come on Hollyweird, have we learned nothing from casting Marky Mark as a teacher in The Happening?) and secondly by not having him try to stab or headbutt the weather. We know what we want from a Gerry Butler film and it’s not the Big Man trying to work out a maths problem. We want maxillofacial trauma and spit-flecked, tough guy invective. Thankfully, Den Of Thieves delivers both.
Opening with the statistic that Los Angeles is the armed robbery capital of the world, Den Of Thieves throws us straight into the midst of an armoured car robbery, conducted with military precision by a multiracial gang of ex-marines led by cool mastermind Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), just as it goes splashily wrong, a bloody massacre ensuing when a dropped cup of coffee sets off a trigger-happy bandit as some seriously outgunned cops arrive on the scene.
But who kills a bunch of cops just to steal an empty armoured car? That’s the question on the mind of renegade detective “Big” Nick O’Brien, leader of the LA Sheriff’s Department’s unorthodox Major Crimes squad. Quickly identifying Merriman and his crew as the culprits responsible, Nick zeroes in on rookie getaway driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr) as the weak link, squeezing him for information, biding his time as Merriman plans his next big job, a raid on the Federal Reserve, the bank that’s never been robbed. Sooner or later, Merriman is going to make a mistake and Nick intends to be there. But there’s no way Merriman is going down quietly without a fight…
Shamelessly filching the plot and protagonists of Heat while replacing its weary existential angst with a homoerotic pissing contest, Den Of Thieves is pumped-up, derivative macho nonsense, swimming in a sea of soured testosterone and crime movie clichés, cop and criminal revealing themselves to be two sides of the same coin as they engage in a dangerous game of cat and mouse that will ultimately prove fatal. While Michael Mann’s entire career is the obvious touchstone here, Butler and Schreiber’s locker room fascination for each other owes us much to William Friedkin’s gritty, pulse-pounding neo-noir To Live And Die In LA, the eventual consummation of their relationship as percussive and bruising as you’d expect.
Smug, leather-jacketed, with a marriage on the rocks, a fondness for strippers and either hung-over or drunk for much of the film, Butler’s Nick is practically the dictionary definition of rogue cop even before he starts kidnapping and beating snitches for information. Butler and Gudegast practically pushing the character into parody as he struts up to a scene of bloody slaughter, plucks a dead victim’s doughnut from the ground and begins cheerfully munching it as one of his men warns him he faces a department-mandated urine test later. It’s a performance so broad it’s practically panto, Butler obviously relishing the opportunity to ham it up and growl lines like “You’re not the bad guys! We’re the bad guys!” Schreiber by contrast is cool and laconic and probably the subtlest thing in the film. He’s a study in coiled and understated menace, the stillness at the heart of chaos, his and Butler’s best scenes together wordless as when they scope each other out at the gun range or when Merriman returns home to find Nick in his bathroom after having had sex with his stripper girlfriend, there confrontations simmering with the primal promise of suppressed violence.
Ably supported by 50 Cent (bizarrely the film’s most likable presence) and O’Shea Jackson Jr, Den Of Thieves is a dog fight between Butler and Schreiber’s alpha males and, while it might not be subtle, Gudegast’s film is a lot more fun than it has any right to be, rattling along at a pace that belies it’s bloated 2 hours 19 minutes running time, ruthlessly serving up the requisite genre thrills with a knowing wink, a climactic shootout in a traffic jam recalling the border firefight of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario.
Tense, violent and refreshingly self-aware, Den Of Thieves may never be a classic of the cops and robbers genre but it’s an enjoyable slice of action-packed hokum, precision-tolled to entertain you on a Saturday night.