By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)

 

If, by around the twenty minute mark, you feel that you’ve mistakenly walked into a retrospective screening of Michael Mann’s brilliant 1995 crime drama Heat, don’t worry, it isn’t just you who is overcome with a heavy sense of deja vu.

Let me know if this sounds familiar. A close-knit, highly organised L.A. criminal gang perform a number of meticulously planned robberies, the first one we see being on an armoured car. This particular heist goes somewhat awry when they end up shooting the bewildered guards. The gang’s leader, Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), isn’t impressed at the loss of life, as they now will be targeted as cop killers. Other members include Levoux (50 Cent), Ostroman (Evan Jones), and driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.).

Turning up at the crime scene is “Big” Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler), who heads the L.A. County Sheriff Department’s Major Crimes Squad. Full of self-confidence and swagger, O’Brien sees straight away that this crime has been committed by Merrimen’s outfit. “Big Nick”, as he is affectionately called, has a well-oiled unit of his own who are equally inseparable, including Magalon (Maurice Compte) and Zapata (Kaiwi Lyman). Their boss is always locking horns with the FBI, and they aren’t afraid of straying outside the rules to get the job done.

Said unconventional behaviour results in O’Brien turning the screws on Donnie, who already has two strikes against his name. Donnie vaguely indicates that Merrimen is planning a large scale heist, so the cat-and-mouse game begins, with each group on either side of the law trying to see if they can outsmart the other before the big event takes place.

Den of Thieves is extraordinarily derivative, liberally borrowing from other, far better films from the word go. The structure, atmosphere, pacing, look and sound are so reminiscent of Heat that Michael Mann must have come close to picking up the phone to call his lawyers. O’Brien and his colleagues’ early antics remind one of Scott Glenn’s rogue unit in Mark L. Lester’s Extreme Justice (1993), but their outwardly unlawful approach is quickly and awkwardly abandoned. There is also a Usual Suspects-type denouement which, for anyone who watches films such as this, will pick a little too easily.

Christian Gudegast, who penned the 2003 turkey A Man Apart, and the 2016 abomination London Has Fallen, makes his directorial debut here, and seems utterly afraid to put anything resembling an individual stamp on the material. He is so busy imitating Mann’s iconic film that he forgets to give the particular environment and the numerous characters that inhabit it any depth, clarity, or weight. Everyone looks serious, but the whole endeavour lacks genuine gravitas.

The technical crew can’t be faulted, as they do what is asked of them, especially the clear night photography by Terry Stacey (Spring Forward, Wendigo, The Confirmation, Elvis & Nixon), the moody score by Cliff Martinez (Drive, Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon), and the measured editing of David and Joel Cox, and Nathan Godley. It’s just a pity it all merely plays out like a facsimile of a superior effort.

Performances suffer the same fate. Butler, who has recently made a name for himself by choosing god-awful scripts, appears to be enjoying himself here, revelling in constant one-liners and muscular-if-irresponsible conduct. However, he is definitely no Pacino. Schreiber is ineffectual as Merrimen, who like the rest of his crew, feel more like constructs than real people. Once again, the detail just isn’t there, leaving the actor high-and-dry.

Jackson Jr., who is the spitting image of his father (Ice Cube), fares a little better, but plot mechanics are deemed more important than any kind of pertinent character ingredients. While looking, sounding, and acting like Ice Cube seemed appropriate in Straight Outta Compton, here it is thoroughly distracting. 50 Cent offers yet another underwhelming performance.

Den of Thieves is a waste of time, simply because its writer/director apparently has no intention of wanting to make a feature that, at least in some shape or form, he can call his own. I know it’s hard nowadays to create something truly original (especially in the crime genre), but Gudegast oversteps the boundary, riding the coat-tails of a beloved classic to achieve success, attempting to make audiences believe they are watching something more substantial than what it actually is. One hopes Gudegast is more assured of his film-making skills when he decides upon his next directorial project.

Rating: 1/5

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