Film Review: Den of Thieves (dir by Christian Gudegast)


Den of Thieves is quite simply one of the most exhausting films that I’ve ever sat through.

It’s not just that the film itself is overly long, though that’s definitely an issue.  (Den of Thieves last 2 hours and 20 minutes.  For the sake of comparison, that’s 17 minutes longer than last year’s best picture winner, The Shape of Water.)  Instead, the real problem is that there’s really not a single unexpected moment to be found in Den of Thieves.  Every cliché imaginable shows up in Den of Thieves and, after a while, the film’s predictability becomes a bit much to take.

It’s a bank heist film.  We know that because it opens with a strangely portentous title card that informs us that more banks are robbed in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country.  This is one of those heist films where a self-destructive police detective goes head-to-head with a ruthless yet sympathetic criminal mastermind.  If you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like Heat, you’re right.  In fact, imagine if they remade Heat without any of the stuff that made Heat more than just another crime film and you have a pretty good idea what you’re going to get with Den of Thieves.

The detective is named Big Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler) and we know he’s a badass because he’s got a lot of tattoos and a beard and when he’s not busting criminals, he’s either getting drunk or getting served with divorce papers.  Nick’s an asshole but that’s okay because Nick … NICK GETS RESULTS, GODDAMMIT!  Nick has a crew that’s devoted to him.  Of course, a lot of them will be dead by the end of the movie.  That’s just the way things go when you’re living in a clichéd crime film.

Big Nick wants to take down Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), who is a former marine turned bank robber.  We know that Merrimen is a badass because he’s got a beard and he’s got even more tattoos than Nick!  In fact, his entire crew is covered with tattoos!  You have to wonder how smart these criminals are, all getting body art that will make it very easy for the police to identify them.  But they’re a good crew.  In fact … THEY’RE THE BEST!  THEY GET RESULTS!  And only Nick can take them down because … ONLY THE MOTHERFUCKING BEST CAN TAKE DOWN THE MOTHERFUCKING BEST, GODDAMMIT!

Sorry, am I yelling a lot?  This is one of those films where everyone yells a lot.  Basically, this entire movie is drenched in testosterone.  This is one of those films where no one gets interrogated with getting knocked around beforehand and where every meeting is some sort of confrontation.  When the end credits rolled, I was shocked to learn that some of these people actually had names.  Just from listening to the dialogue, I assumed everyone in the film was named “Motherfucker.”

And again, it just all gets exhausting after a while.  Maybe if Den of Thieves had been a 90 minute action flick or had featured any of the self-aware humor of Baby Driver, it would have been entertainingly dumb.  But 140 minutes is a long time to spend with a bunch of thinly drawn stereotypes.

Now, there are two positive things that can be said about Den of Thieves.

First off, one of the thieves is played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and he’s got enough screen presence that he can overcome some clunky scenes.  (A scene where he’s interrogated by the police literally seems to go on forever.)

Secondly, the film itself looks great.  The film’s opening scenes do a good job of capturing Los Angeles’s unique mix of grit and glitz.  The opening shootout is pretty well-done and briefly suggests some promise on which the film ultimately doesn’t deliver.

Anyway, Den of Thieves came out this January and despite middling reviews, it did well enough at the box office to earn itself a sequel.  So, in 2020, look forward to more scenes of Gerard Butler … GETTING RESULTS!

Film Review: Wild (dir by Jean-Marc Vallee)


reese-witherspoon-wild-slice

Wild opens with Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) standing on the edge of a cliff.  She has been hiking for days and, because her hiking boots are too small, she’s limping and in a great  deal of pain.  She takes off a boot and a sock and stares at her bloody big toe.  With trembling fingers, she removes what is left of her big toenail.  And then, she throws her boot over the edge of the cliff while screaming, “FUCK YOU!”

And, from that moment, Wild had me.

For the next two hours, I sat there and I was absolutely enthralled as Cheryl, an aspiring writer and a recovering drug addict who was still struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother (played, in heart-breaking flashbacks, by Laura Dern), hiked her way from the Mexican border up to the Canadian border.  I watched as she learned how to survive in the wilderness, how she cautiously learned to trust some of her fellow hikers, and as she dealt with sexist rangers and creepy hunters.

And there were a lot of reasons why Wild held me so enthralled.  There was Reese Witherspoon’s performance, for one thing.  Reese is on screen during every minute of Wild and, for a lot of that time, she’s alone with her thoughts and her emotions.  She gives an amazingly focused performance, one that should regain her some of the respect that she sacrificed by appearing in movies like This Means War and publicly asking, “Do you know who I am?”  Both the film and Reese’s performance resist the temptation to idealize Cheryl.  Instead, both the film and the performance feel real and because Cheryl comes across as a real person (flaws and all), it makes her journey and her achievement all the more powerful.

I couldn’t help but relate to Cheryl.  Like her, I’m an aspiring writer.  Like her, I’m still learning how to deal with the loss of my mom.  Like her, I have trust issues.  Like her, I am sometimes too stubborn for my own good.  Like her, I like to leave quotes in guest books.  Like her, I always pack a few paperbacks before I go on a trip and I like to write in my journal.  Like Cheryl, I’m a survivor and I’m proud of it.

Unlike Cheryl, however, I’ve never gone hiking and I doubt if I ever will.  As much as I loved Wild (and it’s definitely one of my favorite films of 2014), it didn’t leave me with any great desire to go on a hike.  That’s largely because of that first scene.  When Cheryl threw away her boots and screamed, I thought to myself, “That would so be me.”  Of course, the difference is that Cheryl did that after hiking for a month.  I would probably end up doing that after the 2nd day.  And then I’d turn around, go back home, and spend the weekend watching Netflix.

But here’s the thing: Wild is not really about hiking.  Wild is about the journey.  What’s important is not that Cheryl hiked but that Cheryl accomplished what she set out to do.  No matter how difficult it got, no matter how many people told her she should give up, Cheryl walked from Mexico to Canada.  By the end of the film, I felt like, if Cheryl could do that even with boots that were too small, than there was nothing that I could not do.

As a result, Wild is not only one of the best films of 2014.

It’s the most empowering as well.