The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic:
on DEN OF THIEVES (2018, 140 minutes, R)
The Quick of It -
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to a special bullet-riddle treasure from the winter releases, when it comes to quenching the ‘common man’s needs’.
Yes, surrounded with the Academy-driven films, DEN is a welcome diversion. I tell you, they swamp these winter seasons with heart stomping dramas and whacked-out directorial showings pushing for the little, gold guy, you almost forget the year’s joyous films. The ‘suicide watch’ wards must fill up. DEN helps us little people of the critic world enjoy an action flick with spent shell casings and brotherhood. This gritty crime story should join the other ‘must sees’ of the genre – HEAT, THE DEPARTED, THE USUAL SUSPECTS. I could be reaching a little, but this is a second cousin at least. Don’t judge me and my bloated opinion until you make the time to watch this one.
The plot is about a crew of well-organized and highly skilled thieves who are working on a huge score, by hitting the Federal Reserve Bank in Los Angeles. A lofty goal since they state at the beginning that no one has every successfully got past the lobby. At the helm is Ray Merriman, played by Pablo Schreiber (of 13 HOURS and as George 'Pornstache' Mendez of ‘Orange is the New Black’). He is a recently released con who has fully lived, and continues to practice, the military experience. He has surrounded himself by close friends from his military and childhood past to be among the crew. Among them is Enson (50 Cent), Bosco (Evan Jones of 8 MILE and THE BOOK OF ELI), and Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr. who played Ice Cube in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON). Each held their own and provided needed personalities to build this hardcore crew and make you feel a part of this brotherhood or would want something like this in your life. Merrirman and his team of thieves are the ‘absolute order’ element of the story.
To oppose them, ‘undeniable chaos’, but we will call them the ‘good guys’, is led by ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien (Gerard Butler). He leads a team of crack Special Crimes Unit. At the outset of painting their picture, they seem as crooked as the criminals… and it doesn’t let up. Almost another TRAINING DAY on the streets of LA. One of my main gripes is unfortunately with O’Brien. The screenplay drives his sympathetic link with the typical cop husband and father who neglects his family, thus you get to see the split and his spiraling downward in just this small window into his life. Reaching much? Or just plain lazy. There was not enough time to flesh it, or any other cop’s story, out. Believe that. Not enough time. This should have been a TV series to do any justice to the storybuilding going on here. And it would still work.
Director and writer Christian Gudegast pulls everything together for his vision and makes it work splendidly. The previous films on his resume demonstrate his writing talent; mainly including A MAN APART and LONDON HAS FALLEN. DEN shows his escalation in his skill level and the ability to get what he needs from the actors for each scene. As visual proof, this film was built on the idea of escalation. You remember the bank heist at the start of THE DARK KNIGHT, the job the Joker orchestrated? This was that - 2 hours and 20 minutes of controlled tension-building. And remember the firefights in HEAT? Add a couple of those here, as well. This is a true treatment of how a spectacular Sound Department achieves brilliance when paired with the music direction under Cliff Martinez (of ONLY GOD FORGIVES, DRIVE, and TRAFFIC). With all the working pieces moving in conjunction, you are on one heckuva thrill ride.
Unfortunately, this is a far as I go. Spoilers would only follow… and you need to experience it for yourself to understand my excitement. This may not be among the elite crime films for most people, but it is as damn close someone has gotten in years.