Den of Thieves
Director: Christian Gudegast.
This explosive, action thriller came out of nowhere and if it wasn’t for the trailers I inevitably watch, I might have missed this completely. My initial reaction to was, this looks like Heat rip-off and I was then reminded of last year’s awful Sleepless. So I went in with dubious expectations and thinking this is going to be another one of those cheap, sloppy actioners Butler has a recent habit of doing.
Well, I was right about one thing. It’s obviously strongly influenced by Michael Mann’s Heat, taking the opening scene, the score, the confrontations and the loud, explosive action sequences and the looming tension that puts you on edge. It’s impossible for the director/writer to deny they’re influenced by Mann’s Heat, paying close attention to those elements that made that film one of the best action thrillers of the 90’s, if not of all time.
And who is this director!? Christian Gudegast. Like the film itself, he’s seemingly sprung out of nowhere with little known about him. All I can really manage to dig up is that he graduated from UCLA and his “Shadow Box” won Best Student Film in 1992. His other credits include writing A Man Apart, London Has Fallen and assisting on uncredited rewrites for some other major releases. This film has been in development for 14 years and is Gudegast’s impressive directorial debut which proves his obvious love of the craft and the genre he chooses.
Now, it does take a lot from Heat, but he actually makes it work as it’s own film, it’s a very different movie, maybe paraphrasing and expanding on it’s influences. But this isn’t to say it’s better than Heat. Heat, in both my personal and objective opinion, is an absolute masterpiece and an incredible piece of 90’s cinema. It’s like Gudegast saw Heat, and like myself, fell in love with it and wanted to make a movie just like it. Gudegast would have been 25 when Heat was released so this adds up; and if I am, by utter surprise, barking up the wrong tree, then it’s an absolute fluke. But a damn good one at that.
Obviously what was missing but wasn’t a problem, was a powerhouse of a cast. Yes, names and faces like Butler and 50 Cent are present but neither are exactly Pacino or DeNiro; but that doesn’t really matter, and in fact, I feel it works in favour. The strong, weighty characters each carry enough substance to create a good foundation to build upon.
Butler plays ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien; a derailed, bludgeoning detective for L.A.’s county sheriff department, who leads his elite team while investigating a highly skilled and motivated heist gang; a gang consisting of ex-marines and cons who have the edge and proficiency to take down large scores; lead by a ruthless and calculating Ray Merrimen; played by rising star Pablo Schreiber. These are the two that go head to head and share those tense, awkward confrontations as they both continue to out smart each other.
It’s great seeing Butler in such good form, playing a dirty, rough and ready cop who’s prepared to step out of the legal boundaries to get things done; and I was equally impressed with Schreiber’s convincing performance. The two together as opposition made this film highly engaging, but there’s a strong supporting cast, and I say supporting because O’Shea has quite an integral role to the overall story which is what moves this away from it’s key influences. It’s superbly written with a simplistic yet acceptable script.
The action is crisp, deafening and exciting with some amazing sequences. The film opens with a loud and bullet-riddled beginning and your left on the edge of your seat throughout the rest of the film, there’s even impressive attention to the vehicular aspect of the movie. However, it does dip at times, essentially the middle but this is to add some great depth to the characters, again, much like what Heat does; and it builds the right amount of tension. Their personalities are a key focus here which adds balance and stops this from just being an all out, brainless action film.
Gudegast wanted authenticity so extensive research and some purposeful clever training off screen was in order; like the rival boot camps for the cops and robbers, and the technical consultants giving their experiences and earning themselves cameos in the process. The highly decorated, equally controversial, ex-undercover, special agent and New York Times best selling author, Jay Dobyns, serves as both actor and technical consultant for the film; having an impressive and quite traumatic background serving with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms elite division (now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, BATFE.) it really shows how important the same details are in making a film believable.
The entire production is perfectly played out. The heist gear and police tactical outfits are certainly an upgrade from hockey masks and tailored suits. There’s some great shots of Los Angeles but some of the ground work was shot in Atlanta which does well to double up as downtown L.A. And who better to do the score than Cliff Martinez, a composer who’s perfect for this type of gritty and tense thriller. I do wonder how much of his score was also influenced by Elliot Goldenthal’s Heat. Listening to tracks like “You’re Clear to Go” and “Here Comes Security” reminded me of Goldenthal’s “Force Marker” but that’s about it in comparison (I really should stop comparing.) It’s a suitable score but not Martinez’s greatest work and I wished he threw in some more of his synths.
I walked in with low expectations, but came out surprisingly impressed and wanting to play GTAV and hook up with my heist crew. I’ve referenced Heat way more than I should have and should allow this to be it’s own film, which it is. It really is. But if this was a movie cocktail, It’s Heat with a twist of Usual Suspects and a tiny hint of Bad Boys. Gudegast is obviously a massive fan of 90’s action thrillers and this proves it. This is both the most surprising and underrated movie of the year.
Running Time: 8
The Cast: 8
Job Description: 10
The Extra Bonus Point: 10 for being a blatant Heat copy but still being it's own film.
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