DEN OF THIEVES: The Club Of Cliches
With its sheer amount of 'Straight to DVD' film sensibilities, Den of Thieves is as generic as bank heist thrillers come, and at a bloated 2 and a half hour run-time as well.
As the startling year of 2017 came to a close, fierce debate raged against cinephiles and all general movie-loving audiences, as we faced the annual ceremony of having to publicly release our “Best of Year” lists. Whilst some debated the merits of Three Billboards and other awards contenders, one of the most highly divisive subjects arose from the common placement of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, a Showtime Limited Series, amongst other cinematic projects. Some say that Lynch merely made a 18-hour motion picture, one which was split up into 18 parts, whilst detractors argued that the looseness of the definition of a “film” meant we could allow any type of televised entertainment into our favourites lists.
As people still question whether or not a television show could be considered a movie, I think Den Of Thieves, the bank heist thriller from first timer Christian Gudegast, has unintentionally found the answer. As the extraneous 140 minute run-time carried on, I was confused as to how such a generic, straight-to-television property had made its way into cinemas worldwide.
The Killing Type
The age of Prestige Television and the growing amount of VOD releases have quite diminished the negative “straight to DVD” tag, but there still exists a sub-genre of cheap, derivative material that is made purely to be ported onto home media devices. The cover artwork usually exhibit a variety of guns, different elements of prideful machismo identifiers and at least one expired action star that you recognise.
The usual players at the moment include John Cusack, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Antonio Banderas and of course, Danny Trejo. They’re usually disposable slices of easily digestible genre cinema, made to keep steady paychecks for many of the interconnected members of the filmmaking process, slapped with broad titles that suggest a wealth of ass-kicking action. All these different parts are incredibly evident in Den of Thieves, down to the casting of 50 Cent aka Curtis Jackson as one of the primary antagonists.
During a surprisingly effective opening heist sequence, we witness a band of notorious bank thieves, lead by the headstrong Merriman (a fairly straight role for Pablo Schreiber), steal an empty armoured truck, a simple robbery that accidentally ends with fatalities for both Merriman’s gang and the innocent guards inside the truck.
The unusual deaths cause grizzled leather-clad ‘Big Nick’ (Gerard Butler, who’s borrowing Liam Neeson’s hair dye from Taken) greater intentions to hunt down the elusive gang, using his own questionable methods to get results, borderline-illegal manoeuvres that are championed by his mostly anonymous group of supportive cop allies. Between these two titans of weaponised masculinity is Donnie (a wasted O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a friendly bartender who is the heist crew’s incredibly efficient getaway driver, who becomes the unwittingly alternating pawn in Merriman’s heated battle for dominance over the increasingly agitated Big Nick.
Stolen Money, Stolen Time
Bank Heist films can be pretty predictable for the most part, mainly due to the sheer quantity of them relying on two different types of storytelling methods – 1) A Heist goes wrong, and we witness the gradual standoff between the robbers + hostages inside and the police negotiators outside or 2) an organized group plans one big elaborate caper, which is only being kept track by a singular, obsessed detective. Den of Thieves gives us number 2 (in more ways than one), and unfortunately decides to pick every formulaic, boringly anticipated choice it can.
What’s Big Nick’s character? If you guessed a hard-drinking, chain-smoking man with marital problems and questionable ethics, you’d be correct! The movie is one metaphor-laden chess match away from being the service manual in how to make the definitive generic bank heist thriller, a book which would contain a Mad Libs section where you can port in your own wacky gangster names, an established action star, what masks the gang wears and boom – you have your own DTV entry, bound to be hitting Walmart shelves in June.
A Recipe of Futile Ingredients
The major factor that elevates this above standard DTV entertainment is its serviceable cinematography and occasional technical proficiency, especially when it comes to its opening and closing action sequences. The film looks fine, despite its production design and costuming all feeling like a watered-down recreation of David Ayer’s distinctive visual style, with even the characters sporting the same assortment of contemporary hairstyles that wouldn’t seem out of place within Suicide Squad.
Michael Mann’s definitive bank heist thriller Heat may be the easy answer to point to for Den of Thieves’ obvious cinematic influences, but it moreso reeks of Ayer’s previous police work, with an array of other genre touchstones dashed in throughout. You get the visual blocking of shootouts from Sicario, the redacted violence of Antoine Fuqua’s filmography and other recognisable aesthetic traits that form the foundations for this benign tale.
If you cut out the thin attempts at expanded characterisation, Den of Thieves could’ve been a decent, if slight, 90 minute action picture that would’ve dominated cable stations and movie conversations with dads across the country. Characterisation is probably the wrong term, though, as despite devoting a long 2 and a half hours following these dual sets of warring men, we barely learn anything expansive about any of them. Gerard Butler’s sole function outside of chasing down bank robbers is to intermediately deal with a divorce from his wife, which causes us to witness a barrage of scenes where he pathetically tries to see his distant daughters.
Pablo Schreiber is given even less than that, denied any ounce of personality or sense of existence outside of performing elaborate acts of larceny. If the effort at expanded personification of these cliched archetypes is already this wispy, with its already bloated runtime, then why keep it? At least at a leaner, more efficient state, the audience wouldn’t have the time to care about who these characters are, because we’d entertained with a consistent amount of cheap, but potent scenes of outrageous bloodshed.
Den of Thieves: Conclusion
Den of Thieves is the painfully bloated, cliched production that its main ingredients suggest it will be. Gerard Butler, king of adequate action cinema, may be the most noteworthy cast member amongst the largely unrecognisable cast, but his character is just as bland as the other members who go through the motions here. This is a purely expendable diversion, one with precisely zero significant factors to warrant any form of genuine or ironic recommendations, seeing this generic bank heist film delivers the same response as not watching it, except you have an extra 2 and a half hours to enjoy with friends and family members.
With its sheer amount of ‘Straight to DVD’ film sensibilities, I’m shocked that this even secured such a significant release and if we’re gonna allow such derivative material into matinees worldwide, then I’ll happily allow other greater artistic endeavours like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks into the cinematic fold, just to balance things out.
What are some of your favourite bank heist films?
Den of Thieves opened in US cinemas on January 19th and will open in UK cinemas on February 2nd. For more release dates, check here.
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