Review – It’s a Crime Not to See This Movie (“Den Of Thieves”)

What happens when the cops (aka ‘the good guys’) are just as dangerous as the crooks (aka “the bad guys”)? Looks like screenwriter & first-time director Christian Gudegast watched other crime movies like The Usual Suspects, Inside Man, and Heat and thought to himself, “Y’know, I betcha I can do that!” And so he did.

*

This gritty, take-no-prisoners, manly-man movie takes place in Los Angeles (“the bank robbery capital of the world”) and we’re quickly introduced to our rogues gallery of baddies after a daring armored car heist: super-smart bad guy & team leader, Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) and his cronies, Levi (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), Bosco (Evan Jones), and their dazzling baby-driver, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr. – son of rapper/actor Ice Cube).

But hot on their heels is the intrepid Major Crimes unit, led by the Cro-Magnon leader and gum-chewer, Sheriff “Big Nick” O’Brien (Gerard Butler). How tough is he? This guy eats blood-covered donuts breakfast and picks fights with FBI agents for lunch, when he not pissing-off his soon-to-be ex-wife. Yeah, he’s my kinda guy! But while Nick and his boys are trying to figure out the theft of that armored car, Merriman has his sights on his next big score: the Los Angeles Federal Reserve Bank. An impenetrable facility that boasts 52 failed attempted hold-ups… however Merriman has a brilliant plan. They’re gonna try and steal $10 million in untraceable bills from the inside-out.

Will his plan actually work? There’s a hiccup when Donnie is nabbed by Nick and forced to divulge info on Merriman and his whereabouts. But Merriman, even though he’s doggedly pursued by the grizzled Nick, doesn’t give up. There’s meticulous detail in both camps: the inner workings in pulling off a major crime like this by the criminals and the detective work behind finding the bad guys and what they’re up to before it’s too late. In between, there are some side trips down secondary-plot alley that add some comedic and touching strokes here and there, but the revealing ending is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, if only for its sheer audacity.

Gudegast, making his directorial debut here, obviously knows his way around a camera and (thank God!) doesn’t resort to the first-timer’s sloppy “steadi-cam/smash-cut/quick-edit” pitfalls that many others do. He’s shows just enough great POV and follow-shots to showcase his skills without overkill. The same goes with his script. After his forgettable  A Man Apart and over-the-top London Has Fallen (which also starred Butler), Gudegast has finally settled for a stripped down, meat ‘n’ potatoes script, with honest dialogue, real performances, and none of those pesky women getting in the way and talking about their feelings (let the Bechtel Test be damned!).

At 2hrs and 20 minutes, there’s hardly any down-time for Nick’s tragic home life or for anybody else’s backstory, but you DO get an exciting, gripping, and damn interesting well told story being played out without all the dumb stuff getting in the way, like alternate/ cast-off sub-plots, deus ex-machinas, or twisty-turns that don’t make any sense. My only beef here was Gudegast’s annoying Google Maps update every 10 minutes on where you are. Seriously, I don’t need to know the BBQ is in Carson, the meeting is in Montebello, and the donut shop is in Torrance. Who cares!?

The acting is uniformly straight forward, with Butler doing his usual growl and grimace, having graduated from the Liam Neeson School Of Acting with top marks. Schreiber is very good, as is the rapper 50 Cent, but O’Shea Jackson, jr. is following is his daddy’s shoes as a growing actor. He has a natural, easy-going charm and quality about him that I hope he cultivates.   

HEAT (1995)

*

Cops ‘n’ robbers movies are a dime a dozen, dating back to the 30’s, but if you want the ones where the cops are just as crazy as the robbers, well then, you’ve come to the right place. Director/writer Michael Mann, who gave us TV’s Miami Vice, Police Story, and Crime Story, turned loose DeNiro and Pacino on the big screen with this searing crime drama.

Career criminal Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) hires Waingro (Kevin Gage) to help him rob $1.6 million in bearer bonds from an armored car, but during the heist, Waingro kills a guard and then escapes. McCauley’s fence, Nate (Jon Voight), suggests selling the bonds back to their original owner, a money launderer named Roger VanZant (William Fitchner). VanZant agrees, but there’s an ambush… naturally. McCauley survives, but vows revenge against VanZant.

Enter LAPD Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) who’s investigating the heist and knows it’s McCauley’s and his crew. He also reckons their next target to be a precious metals depository. Hanna stakes out the depository and sees the crime in progress, but accidentally alerts McCauley who abandons the burglary. Nuts! Even though he KNOWS he’s being watched, McCauley’s crew goes for a brazen bank robbery worth $12 million. Can you say “brass cajones?”

Meanwhile, Waingro tips-off VanZant about McCauley’s crew and you know that’s not good. In a pivotal and cool scene, Hanna invites McCauley to coffee and they bond over each others professional and personal problems. Both men reaffirm their commitment to their work and to using lethal force if necessary to stop the other. The bank robbery goes down in a hail of gunfire, where McCauley and his buddy, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) are wounded. From there on it’s a vicious cat ‘n’ mouse game of “Where’s Waldo” throughout the city, with Hanna doggedly tracking down McCauley and his people one by one.

At almost a three-hour running time, Mann wanted to tell his tale and tell it right. Not so much an action picture (although there is plenty of that), this movie is more of a character study into the lives of both the cops and bad guys. Meticulous in his storytelling and rich in directing, Mann proves he know his way around a camera and a script. This film also marks this first time powerhouse actors Pacino and DeNiro were paired up together; something nobody thought of doing before.

And you gotta love the casting here! Tom Sizemore, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Tom Noonan, Hank Anzaria, and Danny Trejo? Wow! The movie just sizzles with excitement, tension, and riveting dialogue; a Mann trademark if you are familiar with his TV work. A perfectionist, Mann oversaw the Blu-ray transfer of the movie, which has not only your standard deleted scenes and ‘making of’ stuff, but also has two scenes re-cut differently, to show “new content changes”. How cool is that?

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