Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 19, 2018 8:36 pm 
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The season of good-bad movies is upon us, and here is Den of Thieves. It contains no stars, unless you consider "50 cent" (Curtis Jackson), in a supporting role, as one; you may recognize some faces, though. Notably of the Scottish-born actor Gerald Butler, the main character here, who shines, or stands out like a sore thumb, however you want to see it. The AVClub review calls Butler " undisputed king of junk" and wonders if with him at the top of it, this movie still "might actually be kind of good?" Butler plays Nick Flanagan, a very nasty, very offensive, very full-of-himself L.A. cop, the leader of an "elite team" who acts as much like a gangster as he can. He is also never not eating and smoking, a crude prerequisite, apparently, for playing a tough American cop.

Flanagan's opposite number, Merrimen, the fresh-out-of-jail head of an equally, maybe more, elite, largely ex-military, "team" - of bank robbers - is played by Pablo Schreiber, half-brother of Liev, not at that level, but solid (or is it stolid?) and somehow appealing - not hard to be, compared to the obnoxious Flanagan. This Schreiber has been in lots of stuff; I remembered his turn as a Russian who has a fling with Nancy Botwin in "Weeds." You might or might not like to know Den of Thieves is a shameless knockoff of Michael Mann's Heat, which starred Pacino and De Niro. Both movies, though of different levels of merit, blur the lines between cops and robbers, while showing them at all-out war with each other. Details may vary.

Flanagan's crew has been watching Merrimen's, who're first spotted in the movie's loud, messy opening, staging a shootout that leaves multiple members lying dead, but gets away with an armored car. It will emerge that this time they're aiming to rob a Federal Reserve Bank. It's guarded better than Fort Knox, but it's got billions coming and going, and the aim is to nab 30 million or so of old $100 bills about to be destroyed, and therefore unmarked. Flanagan, in between losing his wife and two young daughters and brutally menacing his wife, nabs the bartender of a large club where many dubious characters hang out. They know he's tied in with the robbers. This is Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr., son of Ice Cube, who played him in Straight Outta Compton). Donnie admits he's the robbers' driver, but insists they never let him on on their capers.

Robbing the Federal Reserve Bank seems like a ridiculous goal (though we're told it's been repeatedly attempted), but wait till we find out how ingenious the scheme is to do it. Too ingenious for its own good, perhaps, and too devious for us to follow it. But much of the fun of the movie is watching the robbery, which is not explained to us in advance, slowly unfold. We know enough by the time we're in the middle of it to feel the suspense.

Flanagan is menacing and nasty to Donnie, while the latter has an appealing innocence about him. You see, he's a relatively recent recruit to the gang of thieves. Gudegast is a newcomer too, as director. This is the first feature he's been at the helm of. He has written a few, none particularly successful or particularly good. This may be his triumph, though, as happens, he probably shouldn't have written the screenplay, or should have gotten somebody else to direct it, who was able to pare it down. Anyway, there's a blatant effort to make Flanagan human: he goes to say hi, and goodbye, to a daughter, and he cries. That's unconvincing, but in a weird kind of Stockholm Syndrome (we are in some way prisoners of Butler's boorish performance), Flanagan does gain our sympathy, though we're still rooting for the crooks to get the better of him.

Den of Thieves may have a lot to say, but it plainly takes too long to say it. Nonetheless the dangerous and ingenious heist of the Federal Reserve Bank, even if it drags on a bit, is undeniably involving. ( Doesn't the famous silent jewel robbery segment of the French classic Rififi drag on a bit too? Yes, but not as long as this.) And then this robbery leads into an all-out battle between the robbers and the cops. By this time, many other, conventional L.A. cops, including Flanagan's nemesis, a clean cut vegan in a suit, who does not smoke, have entered into the chase, and Flanagan emerges as the "crazy" maverick, the only guy who really knows what's going on, trying to keep them from messing everything up.

There's a final shoot-out duel between top cop and top robber, like in a Western. Isn't that too much too? Yes, it is. But there are some nifty surprises for the audience saved till the end. I would not have wanted to miss the final line of dialogue. The joke is on the cops, and it feels as if the fun is just beginning - all over again.

Den of Thieves, 140 mins., was released yesterday without fanfare in Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Israel. U.S. release 19 Jan. 2018. UK, 2nd Feb. Metacritic rating: 56%.



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