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Non-Review Review: Den of Thieves

Heat was not the first cops and robbers film to parallel the opposite sides playing for control of the board, suggesting lives on a collision course inside a gritty crime epic.

However, Heat did it better than most. Heat inspired an entire generation of film fans, and arguably an entire subgenre of heist movie. Los Angeles had always lent itself to operatic crime sagas, with triumph and tragedy playing off against one another in the City of Angels, but Heat redefined the game. The movie developed a style of storytelling, both in terms of actual technical craft and in terms of storytelling construction.

Mann of Today.

Success breeds imitation, and there have been far too many crime films inspired by Michael Mann’s classic, to the point that many film fans were disappointed to discover that Mann himself had not adhered to the template in making Public Enemies. Almost every year, there seems to be another example of a movie constructed in the image of Heat, from Takers to The Town. The quality varies from film to film, as does the level of innovation and inspiration.

Den of Thieves is rather brazen in how much it takes from Heat, lifting both the crime classic’s cinematic language and even direct scenes. The result is a lukewarm reHeat of an exquisite meal, something to which the movie cheekily alludes towards the end of its climactic heist when one character literally serves up days-old leftovers. It isn’t anywhere near as filling or satisfying as the original meal, but it can satisfy a craving.

You definitely feel the Heat around the corner.

There is a lot to like in Den of Thieves, just on a purely visceral level. Everybody involved in the film seems to know exactly how they are pitching the story, and nobody steps too far out of line. Writer and director Christian Gudegast isn’t shy about stealing from superior films in order to power his pulpy cops and robbers throwback. In fact, there is something almost cheeky about the way that Den of Thieves plays out the closing act of Heat – swapping out planes for trains – before seguing into a blatant homage to another iconic crime film. Which one? That’d be telling.

Den of Thieves lifts mercilessly from Heat. At its centre is a contrast between a gang of robbers and group of cops. The movie opens on an armoured car robbery that takes a more violent turn than originally planned. There is a flirtation between the master criminal and the self-destructing cop on his trail, including a tense conversation in a restaurant. Plot beats are lifted almost directly, right down to a smile between crooks just before the heist takes a sharp turn for the worst, leading to a roadway shootout in heavy traffic.

Trash talk.

There are elements of this that work rather well. Cliff Martinez’s synth-heavy score captures the spirit of Michael Mann’s soundscapes, the hum of urban life that is gradually elevated to something approaching spiritual realise. Terry Stacey shoots the film with a fluorescent metallic sheen, emphasising reflective surfaces and presenting the urban environment as somewhere cold and dangerous. There is a lot of yellow, green and blue in the film, giving it a very sterile and isolated feel, even in crowded scenes.

While his action scenes are a little cluttered and disjointed, Gudegast works better at building suspense and tension. Taking a cue from Mann, the camera repeatedly takes in the city that the opening scrawl describes as “the Bank Robbery Capital of the World”, the overhead shots of well-lit streets suggesting that these isolated lives might accidentally overlap or collide. Gudegast is best when the film pushes in on his characters, favouring ominous low shots. Den of Thieves does not so much follow its characters as seem to creep up on them, snaking along the ground.

Old Nick.

Similarly, Gerard Butler understands the level at which he has been asked to pitch his performance; it is a fairly decent riff on late-stage Pacino. Nick “Big Nick” O’Brien is less a character and more a collection of choices that Al Pacino made at certain points in Heat. He is a disaster of a human being, with the film running quickly through a checklist of his failings in a manner that suggests obligation more than enthusiasm. Den of Thieves occasionally stops dead to veer sharply into an awkward narrative cul-de-sac to demonstrate how messed up O’Brien’s life must be.

Butler is not crafting a particularly subtle or nuanced performance; it would be disingenuous to describe his work her as revelatory or enlightening. However, Butler is very clearly having fun with the role, gleefully accepting the invitation to turn his internal “ACTING” dial all the way to eleven and watching the results. In the hands of Butler, O’Brien feels like the bastard child of John Hanna, running on nothing but coffee and whatever lumps of scenery he can grab to hand.

Packing Heat.

However, this spirit of imitation only gets Den of Thieves so far. Inevitably, the movie bites off more than it can handle, attempting to emulate some of the more ambitious facets of Heat that demand greater skill. In particularly, there are moments when Den of Thieves careens off the road into the realm of pseudo-profundity, aiming for the sort of evocative simplistic masculine philosophy that defines so much of the work of Michael Mann. It is easy to undervalue the craft and artistry in writing a line like, “I am alone, I am not lonely”, as Den of Thieves seems to do.

There are moments in Den of Thieves that verge of self-parody, particularly when “Big Nick” offers some pseudo-philosophical reflections on the human condition. “Usually people with something to hide ain’t got nothing to say,” he reflects at one point, as if he read the saying once on the back of a beer mat. Similarly, the scenes leading up to the climax unironically include a sequence of “Big Nick” standing on the beach, staring out into the Pacific. The film wants us to understand that he is looking for peace, but the audience is wondering what he is doing there.

Road rage.

Similarly, Heat was elevated by a superb supporting cast, with even minor roles enriched through veteran character actors; Ashley Judd, Myketi Williamson, Tom Sizemore, Wes Studi, Danny Trejo, Tom Noonan, Jon Voight, William Fichtner, Dennis Haysbert, Ted Levine, Natalie Portman. It is no surprise that even smaller bit players in Heat – like, say Jeremy Piven – went on to much greater things. The movie has an incredibly deep bench, which works with a rich script to provide a sense of a fully-formed world.

Put simply, Den of Thieves does not have the luxury of a top-notch cast. The film runs for two hours and fifteen minutes, but most of the major characters remain oblique to the audience. “Big Nick” is relatively well defined, but his antagonist the mysterious Merriman is underdeveloped. Pablo Schreiber is not able to suggest any richer internal life, which means that the scenes in which “Big Nick” and Merriman stare angrily at one another feel shallow and unsatisfying. O’Shea Jackson does a good job as Donnie Wilson, but the film somewhat buries the character.

“Well, you did ask for my fifty cent.”

(This is mildly unsatisfying, because some of the most satisfying sequences in the film suggest that a broader ensemble would have provided the film with a little more depth. The best sequence in the film that doesn’t feel like a direct rip-off of Heat finds military veteran and career criminal Enson Levoux welcoming his daughter’s prom date to the house. Levoux is played by Curtis Jackson, who is hardly the most gifted of dramatic performers, but the entire sequence seems playful and cheeky, suggesting a reason to care about these characters outside of the set pieces.)

There is perhaps something interesting in the repeated acknowledgement that Merriman and his crew are military veterans with extensive overseas experience. Indeed, recent bank robbery movies like Triple 9 have played on the idea of crimes committed by those in positions of authority. Movies like Den of Thieves and Triple 9 perhaps hint at a growing anxiety about the use of force in American law enforcement, imagining heist movies where those trained by the state to protect have instead abused their power and their position.

Badge of dishonour.

This is an interesting idea, with Den of Thieves repeatedly hinting at the sort of corruption in which “Big Nick” indulges; characters of varying degrees of trustworthiness suggest that the cop might steal from evidence or even murder suspects, with the movie itself suggesting that the character has little care for proper procedure or for the safety of those in his care. Den of Thieves seems to hint at a more timely and compelling iteration of Heat, but never develops the idea.

Den of Thieves is a perfectly serviceable reHeat.

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