Really, REALLY low-rent Heat
People who saw the trailer to Den of Thieves could tell from a mile away that this was a ripoff of Michael Mann’s Heat, the go-to heist movie of all heist movies. But as you watch this 2018 film, you come to an existential realization: man, Heat really wasn’t that good either. Because Den of Thieves copies the 1995 crime drama with such reckless abandon that being presented with a facsimile of the original movie that you can’t help BUT criticize Mann’s heyday. Although I will give Heat this brief compliment: whatever its many glaring faults, it at least had an impressive cast that made the humdrum affair feel like it was something far greater than what it ultimately became. Den of Thieves meanwhile has…O’Shea Jackson from Straight Outta Compton…oh yeah and canary-in-a-coal-mine Gerard Butler is in this too.
So we have the Scottish and wannabe-American Butler as “Big Nick,” a corrupt cop in the mold of Denzel Washington’s turn in Training Day, as he cajoles and threatens others to get to the bottom of a string of robberies affecting Los Angeles all masterminded by an ex-Marine named Merrimen (Pablo Schrieber). Merrimen has recently recruited into his crew a young bartender named Donnie (Jackson), who has had an impressive knack as the criminal’s getaway driver. However, Big Nick muscles in on Donnie, and turns him into an unwilling informant in order to get to the bottom of Merrimen’s next big score: robbing the Federal Reserve. Along the way, we get to know both Big Nick’s troubled home life and Merrimen’s proud camaraderie with his crew of thieves including 50 Cent as…50 Cent. This is all done to make you sympathize with these flat, boring, cardboard cut-out sock puppets before they all inevitably start gunning each other down once the heist kicks into high gear.
The biggest problem this film has is that while the heist itself was fun to watch, it takes over 100 minutes to get to the main event. Now, Heat was at least able to provide an interesting view into the cops’ and robbers’ personal lives as each side prepares for the score to end all scores, and Den of Thieves tries to copy this plot structure (in addition to just about everything else including friggin’ character names). But the latter’s problem is that it provides character development in the clumsiest way imaginable. Your lead detective in Butler’s Big Nick is an absolute worthless piece of shit with no redeeming qualities. No, not even the fact he’s trying to bust a team of violent criminals is a positive in the character’s favor, as he seems to be WAY more interested in gunning the perpetrators down than merely doling out justice. It’s a bloody caricature of what police brutality really looks like, and it just comes across as more laughable than anything else.
The would-be criminals don’t fare much better in the writing department, and are portrayed by the most lackluster of actors. Pablo Schrieber is no De Niro acting-wise, and you only have the film’s word to go on that his character cares about the welfare of his crew, because he does nothing nor says nothing that would communicate this fact. The script does him no favors, as he comes across as a generic criminal leader rather than any discernible trait that would make him unique or even intriguing to follow. The fact that this film makes me wish Dominic Toretto was gracing our presence as this crew’s leader, tells you all you need to know about Schrieber’s character. 50 Cent somehow gets worse in every movie he graces his presence with, and I genuinely had a hard time making out what the hell he’s even trying to say. The rapper’s inclusion into this story is to give you a brief window into his happy home life that’s utilized for a joke that’s been done better by Michael Fucking Bay.
The only actor who gets to walk away with some dignity is O’Shea Jackson. In his very short career, he has demonstrated himself as quite capable in front of a camera, to the point you believe he’s whatever character he’s depicting. Hell, he even managed to do the impossible in this movie and gave me a single character that I gave a shit about in a sea of unlikable, uninteresting schmucks. I really wished the film had focused more on him in the beginning, as he does serve the role of a great protagonist that’s caught between the two worlds of law enforcement and career criminals. That is, until the very end, when Den of Thieves finally gets bored of sucking off Michael Mann and decides to rub its face in the ass cheeks of another popular crime movie from the 90s with a twist that forces Jackson’s character to be seen in an entirely new light. But one tiny problem with this twist was the fact the filmmakers did absolutely NOTHING to properly set this character turn up that it feels completely tacked on for the sole purpose of saying: “We didn’t COMPLETELY rip off the ending to Heat! We ripped off this OTHER movie in addition to the former!”
Now, for all of Heat‘s faults, the action is what still holds up to this very day. Hell, multiple video games have practically done scene-for-scene recreations of its two big set pieces for the past 20 years; THAT’S how good they are. Bizarrely enough, Den of Thieves takes the set up from these two big scenes (robbing an armored truck and having a shootout in a traffic-filled street) and manages the impressive task of giving you shallow imitations of said set pieces that feel pathetically limp. The armored truck robbery lacks the visceral crash and opts more for a standard stick-up job, while the gunfight in the streets removes all possibility for collateral damage by having people about to be caught in the cross fire visibly ducking away out of sight. So when the shit hits the fan, we don’t even have the worry of an escalating body count to be concerned over. It just reinforces what a pale imitation this film really looks like.
The film gets more frustrating as it goes along, and that ending tossed me right out of the damn theater. While some might enjoy it so they can get their action movie fix, don’t bother wasting a dollar at the theater for this. Hell it’s not even worth it even if you have a MoviePass subscription. Wait for this to hit streaming sites, because this is is a painfully low…
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