Just when you were about to brace yourself for your bi-annual abusive appointment with Gerard Butler, he went and did the best thing he’s done in years.
Nothing about Den of Thieves inspired any sort of promise, least of all the involvement of Gerard Butler, who has of late decided to do only the most thickheaded action movies he could find, films like Olympus has Fallen and Gods of Egypt and the bafflingly nutty Geostorm. It was a January release, which is traditionally that time of the year when studios dump their least valuable films, and if you looked closely, you could spot 50 Cent on the poster. Also, it’s called Den of Thieves, which sounds like the rejected title of a Dean Koontz paperback. Never a good sign.
But through some miracle, a Gerard Butler action movie that begins and ends with a street shoot-out and features more tattooed characters than an entire season of Sons of Anarchy turned out to be not only watchable, but without doubt, the best action film the star has done since 300 or RocknRolla. That was 10 years ago.
Butler has always been an actor with great screen presence. Even as a cartoon. It’s no wonder then that in the decade that followed the release of 300, several directors tried to harness that persona into a variety of films, including a brief period that involved romantic comedies of the worst kind. In Den of Thieves, debutant Christian Gudegast has (perhaps inadvertently) stumbled upon the secret. Butler is great at bellowing dialogue, we get it, but he’s better when he’s doing the yelling with a twinkle in his eye.
Den of Thieves is the sort of movie in which every character has a beard. They have tattoos crawling out of the tops of their vests and snaking across their ripped arms. It’s also the sort of movie that – unless you haven’t guessed already – has no time for women. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; a point could be made that Miss Congeniality has no time for men. With the exception of maybe a couple of central characters, no one seems to have a second name – everyone’s a Nick or a Donnie or a Bosco.
But it’s also the sort of movie that has, presumably over a six-pack of beer and a bagful of nachos, enjoyed the movies it is trying to emulate. Den of Thieves owes more than a debt of gratitude to Michael Mann’s Heat; it owes a briefcase full of unmarked bills. But it would be unreasonable to expect this film (or any Los Angeles heist movie, for that matter) to come close to that classic. It does, however, fit nicely in a ragtag team of movies such as Armored (the one in which Matt Dillon steals an armoured truck) and Empire State (the one in which The Rock chases Liam Hemsworth, who’s stolen an armoured truck) and Triple 9 (the one in which several people steal an armoured truck while Kate Winset hams it up as a mob boss).
It’s the story of a bunch of career criminals – the kind of guys who hang out in gyms and bars and garages – and one very tough cop, played by Butler. After a job gone wrong, Butler begins investigating the robbers, who he believes are planning something major.
What makes Den of Thieves a notch above the scores of other heist movies we get every year (not including those directed by Steven Soderbergh) is the surprising amount of patience it has for developing its characters. They’re layered, would you believe it? They have emotions. And despite what you may think, Butler and even 50 Cent, manage to create actual relatable human beings. They might be on either side of the law, but when the bullets aren’t piercing metal and breaking bones, when the tough guys are grunting and growling, there are scenes that involve daughters and wives and alcohol and addiction.
Gudegast does this by giving Butler’s character ticks. Now, ticks aren’t necessarily a novel way of adding personality to a character, but it’s fun to see Butler’s cop take swigs of cough syrup, and in a proven strategy to throw criminals off, imply that he is gay.
That being said, it’s difficult to imagine a person who isn’t accustomed to loud, testosterone-fuelled Butler movies in which he wears bullet vests to bed enjoy this. But for the rest of us who’ve been hoping for him to come around, this could be it. Den of Thieves has several show-stopping gunfights, thrillingly mounted heist sequences, entire scenes devoted to male posturing, and a particularly good Gerard Butler performance at its core.