CRIME CULTURE: Den of Thieves

This is the first instalment of a new regular series from True Crime News Weekly looking at ‘crime’ in the media and across pop culture. We’ll investigate how realistic it is, how accurate it is, and how good it is. The first to come under our gaze is the newly released American heist film, Den of Thieves.

Den of Thieves, directed by Christian Gudegast, whose last screen credit was the universally panned London Has Fallen, a film so tortuous it could have been used as an alternative to waterboarding, opens with a statement claiming that Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the world with a blag (allegedly) occurring every 48 minutes.

Frankly, if in LA, like most modern cities, bank branches are disappearing faster than Barnaby Joyce’s credibility, this figure is doubtless, like 95% of statistics, made up entirely on the spot.

It sets the tone however for a film that bases its entire premise on manipulation and disingenuity, stretching the truth like a rubber band, asking the audience, to willingly swallow the biggest load of hokey trumpery since, well, you get the idea.
Just to ensure there can be no occasional moments of believability, as in London has Fallen, the star here, is ‘Big’ Gerard Butler who plays a character called ‘Big’ Nick O’Brien, presumably on the basis that GB can realistically portray ‘big’. Sadly, he can’t, unless ‘big’, in this particular context is suffixed by the word, ‘tit’.’

Numerous other movies – much better ones – are anonymously referenced along the way – The French Connection, The Usual Suspects and Point Break to name only a few, but its the Michael Mann mid-1990’s blockbuster Heat where director Gudegast has found his influence – i.e. shamelessly stolen the storyline.

Though by no means a bad film, Heat is best remembered as being the first time Robert de Niro and Al Pacino appeared in a movie together, a significant occurrence from those far off days when actors were somewhat choosy about the roles they took. Now of course, even mega-stars will appear in any old codswallop if the money is right, a point of view clearly evidenced by De Niro’s performance in Dirty Grandpa, where the very first scene sees him masturbating furiously to heavily pixelated porn, a Kleenex box resting on his chest. (Try as I might, I simply can’t imagine the great Sir Laurence Olivier doing the same. Such an esteemed thespian would surely have insisted on utilising a monogrammed silk handkerchief.)

In Heat however, De Niro was still in his pomp and Den of Thieves attempts to capture some of this cred by reprising the premise of a hard man cop meeting – and developing some measure of regard for – a hard man criminal. The problem – one of the problems, but undoubtedly the main one – is that the Al Pacino character in Heat is played here by the aforementioned ‘Big’ Gerard Butler. Big Gerry = Big Problem. Like handing the Barcelona number 10 jersey to some bloke who plays in the Collingwood Over 35’s league – or to put it another way, me – and expecting him to boss the midfield. It simply can’t happen. And doesn’t.

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Big guns and ‘Big’ Gerard Butler in the cliche-ridden ‘Den of Thieves’

So to the plot. A team of clever criminals – in 30 years working in criminal justice I’ve never met one yet – plan to pull off a heist that’s never been achieved before, emptying the Federal Reserve Bank of its vast resources of banknotes destined for incineration. Attempting to foil them is GB’s character ‘Big’ Nick O’Brien, another of those staples of cops’n’robber movies, the maverick policeman who takes orders from no one and doesn’t play it by the book – unless the book happens to be a literary version of Sinatra’s ‘I Did It My Way’.

O’Brien ticks every Bad Lieutenant shtick going – he’s a foul mouthed drunk, a thug, a bully and – jarringly – a wife abuser. Mystifyingly, as O’Brien’s character develops, in as much as GB does development, we see his vulnerable side and, I think I’ve got this right, as an audience, we’re supposed to feel sorry for him.

Maybe it’s because GB is such a poor actor, but I didn’t and when his wife eventually takes the kids and dumps him, leaving O’Brien disconsolate on the sidewalk, I was cheering her on, offering unsolicited advice that she should immediately drain his bank account and then send pictures of his tiny penis to everybody on her mailing list. GB’s O’Brien is an obnoxious creation. Even his vulnerable side is loathsome.

The cliches continue. There are numerous shoot outs with automatic machine guns, though hardly anyone gets injured, various convoluted scenes of O’Brien hassling the gang leader, played rather well by Pablo Schreiber, and, best of all, that mainstay of the genre, an extended set piece which takes place in a strip club; loads of consequential dialogue going down whilst a naked woman does the self-same thing to a shiny pole. The purpose of such scenes is to presumably show that these are hard nosed villains living on the edge of society, but really all it ever does for me is portray sad horny losers living on the edge of reality. Still, big tits sell, which presumably perfectly explains Butler’s successful career.

In the interests of fairness, I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say, it employs a movie postulation which has been done before, a straight take in fact, from another, far superior film mentioned above.

At an unnecessary two and a half hours, Den of Thieves is, a rambling, unsatisfying experience, proving, if such proof is ever needed, that fake crime stories will always win over the real thing. It’s unrealistic. It’s overlong. It’s been done before and, mainly due to the substandard performance of ‘Big’ Gerard Butler, (and to be perfectly fair to him, he’s doing his best), it’s absolute rubbish.

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CRIME CULTURE: Den of Thieves

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About Gary Johnston 20 Articles
Gary Johnston is an author, academic and former parole officer with decades of experience in the criminal justice system. He is True Crime News Weekly's Melbourne correspondent. His book 'No Previous Conviction' was published in May 2017 and is available on Amazon.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting article by Gary Johnston. Both sad and amusing about unrealistic depictions of crime in movies. Yep! Crime movies keep repeating the same cliches such as the well-known fact that a gymnast roll/somersault protects one against bullets, cuts and bruises!
    Part of the problem is caused by writers of crime fiction. John Douglas, the legendary FBI profiler once gave a speech to the Mystery Writers of America but he quickly realised they were not really interested in the minutiae of real crime solving. They simply started turning off and tuning out. So much for wanting the “real story”. (Details of this episode are in Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, pp 383-4).
    Real police are also not immune from wanting quick fixes to complicated, hard-to-solve crime. Who could forget the Portland beauty salon murder case where there was little DNA evidence to connect the suspect to the murders, so police claimed he must have organised a hit man! Yet, whoever heard of a professional hit man loitering for an inordinate amount of time at a crime scene torturing and inflicting injury just for the sake of it? Perhaps they got the idea from a particularly gruesome movie?
    But the biggest cliche in crime movies is that handsome people are hardly ever guilty and can usually be trusted! Example: Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive”.

    Christian Bennett

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