Authenticity. That’s the name of the game when it comes to Den of Thieves’ primary aspiration. Writer-Director Christian Gudegast (writer of the great London has Fallen) has been dreaming of making this film for over a decade and demands it look and feel real. From costuming to firepower to nuanced physical movements, everything has been checked and double-checked for authenticity.
Well, that and making a gritty crime epic on par with Michael Mann’s classic Heat. Of all the titles thrown around by Den of Thieves’ cast and crew (titles including To Live and Die in LA, The Usual Suspects, The Town), Heat was the one that reliably came up across the board.
And it’s not hard to see why. Den of Thieves tells a story of cops and robbers - or as Gudegast puts it “regulators and outlaws” - participating in urban warfare. The plot revolves around several bank heists and their aftermath, but the story and themes are all about these men, a family of criminals versus a group of cops whose methods and personal lives render them possibly more amoral then the villains they chase.
“I’ve never come across a script like this,” claims a tired Gerald Butler before cursing at a piece of costume velcro that has gone awry. There’s a cliche that action stars are small. Butler’s huge, much bigger than he seems on screen. He tells us of the recklessness of his cop character Nick Flanagan and how easy it would be for him to switch sides with the bad guys. He respects his quarry but wants to be king to their pawn. He’s “a good guy but yet so fucked up.”
On the bad side, there’s 50 Cent, playing Ensin, an ex-football playing, ex-con with five children who lost his mind after a seven-year prison stint. As 50 Cent puts it: “An element to fight the element”. To be honest, we didn’t get a lot of Den of Thieves talk out of 50 Cent. He did, however, offer us a hilarious 20-minute-long unbroken monologue that was a wild privilege just to hear (but probably shouldn’t make it into print). Someone needs to put him in an improv comedy asap.
Caught somewhere between the cops and robbers is O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s Danny, a getaway driver and the newest member of his crew. According to Jackson, Danny isn’t sure what side he’s on and spends the movie “questioning loyalty”, something that’s likely to make this story of blurred moral lines even murkier.
That moral murkiness is a big part of the film and its production. Both teams attended separate “boot camps” dictating a different set of physical skills for each. Even the cinematography is affected, as the villains are shot on tripods with controlled movements, while the cops are captured on chaotic handheld cameras. The teams are different, but in ways that confront expectations. As producer Tucker Tooley puts it: “Our good guys are just as bad as our bad guys and our bad guys have shades of good in them as well.”
Aiding Gudegast and his actors is veteran undercover cop Jay Dobyns (also appearing in the film), who helped train actors to make sure they moved, fired, and carried themselves in an authentic fashion, so much so that changes would be made on set if he saw anything awry in the performances. Dobyns also guided the authenticity of Gudegast’s script. Having been involved with hundreds of undercover operations, he is certainly authentic himself. You only had to take one look at him to realize we are all wimpy cowards who will never see 1/5 of what he’s lived through. Thank goodness.
Whether Den of Thieves lives up to its cinematic inspirations remains to be seen, but it’s definitely not a film that’s messing around. It’s going to take a big swing for the crime saga fences when it comes out January 19th. With its proud R-rating, dirty tough-guy bravado and streamlined heist plot, I have high hopes for this one. “There are no one-liners or quips,” claims Gudegast. “It’s not that kind of movie.”