By: Kevin Jordan
I did not see that coming.
Raise your hand if you get super excited when you first hear about a new Gerard Butler movie. Anyone? No? Okay, raise your hand if you loved 300 and forgave Butler for doing bad rom-coms like The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter. Still nothing, huh? How about this – raise your hand if you are not the least bit surprised that a Butler-led film is opening mid-January because you have seen at least one of Geostorm, Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen, or Gods of Egypt. Ah, there we go. Sadly, I have seen three of those gems, so I fully expected Butler’s new Den of Thieves to remind us why we watch Oscar-bait in January instead of the usual drunken-mistakes that are dumped on us just after the New Year. To my astonishment, Den of Thieves did not vomit all over us.
(SPOILERS ahead, but you will still be able to drive home after.)
The film opens with a crew of four well-trained and heavily armed thieves stealing an armored truck. They have a shoot-out with the cops, a car chase, and escape into the depths of Los Angeles. The next morning, Big Nick (Butler) and his High Crimes unit of the LAPD investigate the crime scene, trade barbs with an FBI guy (only Nick, that is), and wonder why the thieves would steal an empty armored truck. While the two scenes are fairly typical for this type of movie, it sucks the audience in because we want to know why as well. Plus, we received free hats marketing the film prior to entering the theater, so the entire experience was quickly at plus-two.
Act one of the film is where I realized we were not watching a throwaway winter action flick. While some critics complained of a long running time (140 minutes for the full film), I was happy to see quality time devoted to fleshing out characters, which is most definitely not a hallmark of Butler films (though my wife would like me to mention that P.S. I Love You was a very good Butler film, character development and all. You’re welcome dear). In addition to getting a look into Nick’s professional and personal life, we learn a lot about the heist crew, led by Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber). You may remember Schreiber as Pornstache (Orange is the New Black), but where Pornstache was just creepy and not ripped, Merriman is menacing and looks like he could snap Big Nick in half. But, Merriman is also very intelligent and cool under pressure, which makes him that much more dangerous and intriguing as a villain. Merriman is the kind of guy you would not want to run into in a dark alley. Or a lit alley. Or ever.
On the same side of the coin, Nick appears to be just short of a criminal himself and definitely not a great human. He cares little for police procedure, has nothing but disdain for any authorities outside of his squad, and runs his squad much like a cartel boss. When his wife discovers he cheated on her with a stripper, she leaves with their two daughters and my reaction was “I kind of hope Merrimen shoots Nick.” As we did with Walter White, we are actively rooting for Merrimen to succeed in whatever heist he is planning and boy is it a doozy. Merrimen wants to rob the Federal Reserve Bank.
Borrowing heavily from Ocean’s Eleven (and other great heist movies), we get a detailed explanation of the plan, as well as a brief history of how close previous attempts came to success (none were even close). However, Den of Thieves has a trick up its sleeve. Nick has managed to turn one of Merrimen’s crew and the film takes a twist that is so surprising, my jaw audibly snapped open. I am going to stop there with regards to the plot, but we need to back up to talk about the characters a little more.
There were a couple of scenes that felt out of place and pointless until I realized what the film was doing. The first act spent time establishing the professional credentials of our heroes and villains, but the second act spends time muddying the waters by making all of them seem very human. In one scene, Nick is served with divorce papers and my initial reaction was “who cares about paperwork in a heist film?” Then, Nick goes to see his daughter and breaks down crying in his truck. In another scene, Levi Ensen (50 Cent), one of the thieves, pulls the old intimidate-the-male-prom-date gag, but with added help from the entire crew. In both cases, the movie makes us re-evaluate our impressions of these guys, which makes it harder to root for either side. The idea that this movie might have multi-dimensional characters and a well-thought-out, tight plot never crossed my mind.
Without giving anything more away, the third act is one of the tensest pieces of film I have seen in a long time. Because the film did such a great job of blurring the traditional good guy/bad guy lines, I had no idea how the movie was going to play out. Everything was on the table – from everyone dying in a massive shootout to Nick and team thwarting the big heist to Merrimen and crew pulling of the job and shooting Nick in the face to Keyser Soze sneaking in, stealing the money, and killing everyone himself. The sky’s the limit!
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed a movie I expected to be typical January/Butler garbage. Not only were my expectations ground into a fine powder by the film, but someone (namely director Christian Gudegast) finally figured out how to properly use Gerard Butler. Maybe I will give Geostorm a chance.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back. Aside from the Oscar-bait, you won’t find any better this time of year.