Dirtbag Nihilism and Crime Scene Donuts: Christian Gudegast's DEN OF THIEVES
"I told you.”
These are the final words of Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), as he bleeds out onto the streets of Los Angeles in Christian Gudegast’s dirtbag crime epic Den of Thieves (2018). Though the Heat (1995) parallels had been obvious from moment this movie was spotted coming around the corner, they solidify across the film, concluding with Merrimen’s dying breaths echoing those of De Niro’s Neil McCauley. It’s easy to write Gudegast off as a hack copy artist, and many did when it was first released (despite Den doing decent January dead zone box office). Along with Mann’s crime masterpiece, Gudegast draws from a well of genre classics, most notably Inside Man (2006) and The Usual Suspects (1995). On its face, Den of Thieves is nothing more than parts of “better,” perhaps more “sophisticated” genre films. Dig beneath the disgusting veneer of sweat, grime, and Monster energy drinks, however, and you’ll find that it’s far more deserving of being their tremendously bleak equal.
Like Heat, Den of Thieves follows a gang of high line thieves and a determined detective hot on their trail. Sweeping in and out of their lives across a sprawling two and a half hours, we watch as Merrimen and his crew play the proverbial mouse to Nick O’Brien’s (Gerard Butler) big cat. We see every intricacy of Merrimen’s heist plans coexisting alongside Big Nick chasing leads and squeezing informants. Its gorgeous, enveloping photography from Terry Stacey laces itself around you, lulling you into a world of masculine violence, as should all great crime films. There’s something not quite right here, however. It’s a feeling that vibrates beneath Cliff Martinez’s numbing, ambient score. It lurks within the vitriol of these meathead brutes barking at one another. Where Mann finds swooning romanticism in doing “the job,” as well as honor in the men who do it, Den of Thieves discovers only hollow, broken sadness.
Bleary-eyed, puffy, and perpetually in need of a cold shower, Gerard Butler locates this caveman melancholy better than anyone. Introduced by Everlast’s eternally corny rap-rock ballad “What It’s Like”, Butler’s Big Nick is a hulking, primo slice of spoiled beef. As he stumbles home after another late night, stinking of a “stripper” (as his wife venomously points out), it’s almost shocking to see Butler looking like this. It’s easy to forget, now that he’s made a career playing the world’s most divorced man, but Butler used to be something of a heartthrob. Early stints in romcoms, a catastrophic yet dashing turn as The Phantom, shredded out of his mind in 300 (2006), Butler was about as ideal a leading man as you could get for a brief moment in time. Tall, handsome, willing to sing and make himself look silly, it always felt like his ceiling was a charming, yet bland centerpiece for date night fare. Sure, he’d found a bankable action franchise in the Fallen series (2013 - 2019), but again, he wasn’t doing much to set himself apart, turning in solid, serviceable work meant to evaporate from the mind. With Den of Thieves, Butler not only finds his lane, but also transcends into the darkest possible iteration of the possessed heel detective; a booze and adderal-laced bizarro world double to Al Pacino's Vincent Hanna.
“You’re not the bad guys. We’re the bad guys,” Big Nick says to Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) after kidnapping him and pumping him for information. Donnie, having been spotted with Merrimen, wakes up in a hotel room to Big Nick and his Sheriff’s department crew partying with sex workers, beer bottles strewn everywhere. Grossly overstepping their power is something we see the police do in every crime movie, but here it doesn’t feel like a simple "part of the job". For once, owing in large part to Butler’s swaggering, sweaty menace, it’s rendered disturbingly. If these guys wanted to, they could disappear Donnie, and who would really know (or, in their minds, care for that matter)? That they so easily snatched him off the street is bad enough, made worse to the modern viewer only by the parallel to the real-life sudden arrests we saw captured via cams throughout the Summer of '20.
Big Nick is entertaining, sure, but neither the film nor Butler ever let you forget that this man is a throbbing mass of hate, sadness and failure. No moment makes this clearer than when he crashes a dinner at his in-laws to sign his divorce papers. Already three sheets to the wind, Big Nick arrives to find his wife with her new man and dresses her down, along with her entire family. After embarrassing himself, his ex, and her family, his soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law tries to escort him to the door, and our hero sarcastically barks, “what are you gonna do? Call the cops?”
Again, compare Big Nick to Heat's Vincent Hanna. Sure, there’s a deep well of sadness in Hanna’s inability to put his family over his job, but Hanna’s never a complete scumbag. When he catches his wife, Justine, cheating, he doesn’t lash out in the way you’d expect. There’s almost an understanding beneath Hanna’s anger; a “yeah, I get it” response to the fact that Justine's so fed up with the late nights and broken promises. Big Nick’s failings, on the other hand, are only apparent to us. He doesn’t seem to get that he’s a monster. He treats women like objects because in his mind, his badge makes him a hero by default. He can torture anyone and everyone because he’s perpetually above the law. The fact that he can’t see that is horrifically sad. His life disintegrates before his very eyes because of “the job”.
Unlike Mann’s romantic notions about guys who just won’t quit, Gudegast unearths something so broken and somehow so mundane. Big Nick is a dime a dozen in a country full of authoritative thugs. You can aspire to Vincent Hanna because there’s an honor to him. Even if you don’t believe in the badge or the institution, you can relate to the inability to let go of what means most to you. The badge means nothing to Big Nick, at least beyond being a free pass to do whatever he wants to whoever he wants. His late nights turning to red-eyed mornings aren’t spent in the office trying to connect one thread to another, but in bars gulping down poison so he can briefly disassociate from his pathetic reality.
On the other side of the interrogation table, Ray Merrimen’s existence is just as hollow, if not more so. Vague details are given about his military background, putting him in concert with other recent crime films like Ambulance (2022) and Wrath of Man (2021). Unlike those films, which put a clear emphasis on how we’ve abandoned the men and women who fought in our endless War on Terror, Ray’s background is an afterthought. You discern that he's a forgotten man whose only recourse is crime, but like with Big Nick’s brutality, there’s nothing special about his penchant for holding up armored cars. This point is made explicitly right from the jump as Den of Thieves opens with a title card telling us that LA is the “bank robbery capital of the world.” Ray isn’t some avenging hero, a former goon for the US government taking back his agency. No, Ray’s just another guy with a gun trying to eke out a living in a city full of men who look and act exactly like him. He's a facsimile, just like this movie is copy; yet his bad bro, Archer Farms existence somehow strengthens Thieves' nihilistic core.
Gone is the code that De Niro’s McCauley lives by, always protecting his men. When Ray’s guys are gunned down, he barely glances back. It is what it is. When McCauley finds love, you believe it. Even when he makes the fatal mistake of tying up that one loose end, you never doubt his commitment to Eady (Amy Brenneman). Ray’s emotional attachment is so nonexistent that the one glimpse we’re given of his love life is when he returns home to the aftermath of having pimped his girlfriend out to Big Nick solely to throw him off their scent. She’s nothing but a pawn in this sorry excuse’s bid to get rich. Never is Ray’s insignificance made more brutally clear than in the film’s twist ending. Long after he’s bled out on the asphalt, another notch on Big Nick’s gun, it’s revealed that Donnie was the mastermind all along. Donnie, the wimp kidnapped by Bick Nick simply for having been seen talking with Ray. Ray was just some meathead with half a brain who could pull a trigger, and he pays for it with his life. Donnie, rich, back home in England, and already eying his next prize (a diamond exchange across the street from the bar he works at), couldn’t care less.
Den of Thieves was, and still is, treated as Heat’s younger, dumber brother. In many ways, it’s hard to dispute. Sure, the action is cold, calculating and visceral, and there’s a certain charm to watching these cell block dummies annihilate one another. The nuance and beauty of Mann’s masterpiece is traded for a seething mass of men indistinguishable from the guys populating a shitty bar on a Friday night. But therein lies the heartbreak. When Hanna finally guns down McCauley, it’s in a wide open airfield, a stretch of vast possibilities and iridescent algae he'll never see out there in the distance. Ray, one the other hand, meets his end in a claustrophobic, grimy street covered in graffiti and garbage, the world around him evenopling him, as if to say, “this guy didn’t matter. None of what he did matters.” These are anonymous dirtbags, both cops and robbers, whose lives and misdeeds exist in a void of violence, sadness and, ultimately, death. Gudagast discards any notion of romance or aspiration and in turn gives us one of the most clear-headed depictions of the interchangeable meaningless of both sides of the law. “Good” and “evil” are just labels. All these guys want is to operate above and beyond mortals like us and enrich themselves while doing so. Some of them simply hide behind a badge to do it.
Brandon Streussnig is a Staff Writer and Social Media Manager for Secret Handshake, whose writing can also be found at Fangoria, The Playlist, and Polygon.