Den of Thieves: Movie Man Jackson

This is Grand Theft Auto V played out on the silver screen. Los Angeles is the home of many things, including (apparently) the most bank robberies. Heading a crew of career criminals and military men is Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), who’s got the right-hand man in Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and talented driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr) among other squad mates. Their goal? To pull off the job of all jobs: Rob the LA branch of the Federal Reserve, which houses untraceable money if taken at the right time.

In their way is Sheriff Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler), a brash, take-no-prisoners officer lawman who may be just as bad as those who his crew is trying to stop. This can only end one way. The heat is on.

Quick, what do Proud Mary and Den of Thieves, two movies released in back-to-back weeks, have in common? Both employ people behind the camera who had major responsibilities in 2016’s London Has Fallen, the movie that keeps on coming back! Instead of Babak Najafi, Den of Thieves is put together by Christian Gudegast, the writer of that Mike Banning sequel who carries directing duties in addition to screenplay responsibilities this time around. While this is far from the best of the best in the cops versus robbers genre, it is surprisingly competent and even a little entertaining.

Hard not to compare every recent cops and robbers movie against Michael Mann’s legendary Heat, and Gudegast certainly doesn’t seem to shy away from the similes. Our good guys (read: bad guys) and bad-der guys intersect quite early and often, somewhat laughably with the frequency this occurs. Anyone who has seen this movie before knows what the climax will consist of. There’s some superfluous additions and scenes to the overall story; 140 minutes could probably be cut down to 120, max. However, a level of unpredictability does keep things engaging, and while somewhat implausible, there is a massive twist that doesn’t completely collapse when thought about.

Den of Thieves isn’t the all-out, fully-automatic heist-action the trailers set it up to be. This mad city (get it?), while not exactly slow paced, is slightly more methodical than anticipated. Think of it like GTA V, in that there are many set-up missions to get to the massive heist. Honestly, the film could use one more set piece—preferably in the middle—but at least Gudegast does bookend with a tense beginning and end action sequence that are shot and captured much, much better than anything in London Has Fallen or Proud Mary, aided by a steady score by composer Cliff Martinez. Good stuff for a directorial debut.

Despite Gudegast’s efforts to flesh out his main characters, they are of the one and slightly two-dimensional than three-dimensional ones. Machismo is the name of game in Den of Thieves; sadly, there’s not a prominent female to be found. 50 Cent is a name who’s not required to do much except look tough and be convincing with a rifle. That he can do. Easily, this is certainly Gerard Butler’s best role in years. Looking at his filmography, that’s not saying much, but there is a gruffness, gung-ho, and even intentionally comedic aspect he finds, playing off the stereotypical asshole officer in charge without being corny or groan-inducing.

But, the standouts are the underrated Pablo Schreiber, physically convincing and cerebral as the gangleader, and O’Shea Jackson, Jr, once again showing star power and thespian versatility in spades as the link that tethers the opposing forces. Even when the movie is too methodical in its pacing without adding a ton in the substance department, there’s enough collective charisma to keep from checking out.

Any movie that’s designated for January release that actually isn’t a dumpster fire feels like a minor win. Den of Thieves does not operate at a high level, but a level slightly higher than mediocre.

C+

Photo credits go to avclub.com, page58.com, and Youtube.com.

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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Southpaw: Movie Man Jackson

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“Mom always said it was us who took care of you.”

Well, at least this main event mostly delivered, unlike that May 2nd one. Light heavyweight boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has made his way from the tough foster home environment of Hell’s Kitchen to the bright lights inside the squared circle. At 43-0, he holds his division’s crown jewel and has been able to provide a comfortable life for his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), also from Hell’s Kitchen, and daughter Leila (Ooma Lawrence). He’s taken a beating, sure, but he’s been awfully strong at giving them out as well.

Always an emotional fireball, Billy emotions become harder to control once life gives him an uppercut he couldn’t have planned for. His actions in the aftermaths of these tragedies have lost him custody of Lelia, his finances, and his boxing career. Hope seems non-existent at this point, but Billy tries to find it from inner-city boxing trainer Titus “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker). The fight to redemption will not be an easy one.

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If one is watching Southpaw and expecting a unique boxing story, that would be unwise. Yours truly enjoys boxing, but honestly, the sport, itself often featuring its best fighters coming from nothing to something, lends itself to the same type of story treatment that exists in the Rocky movies, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, etc. The trailer is, for all intents and purposes, the movie in Southpaw. No feinting of punches.

For most movies, that would be a bad thing. But even with well-worn story gloves, Southpaw manages to land most of its punches, primarily because of the work done by the cast. At this point, Jake Gyllenhaal may be one of the surest things in the business when it comes to turning in top-notch performances. Billy Hope is another role that he can put on his ever-impressive resume.

He is adept at displaying the raw emotion and fighting spirit his character carries in certain scenes, but also the lack of equilibrium that is represented by stammering his words, a probable result from one too many shots to the head. Undoubtedly, it is more stellar thespian work, but it would be a surprise to see an Oscar nomination only because the Hope character isn’t as layered as the people he played in, say Nightcrawler or Prisoners. If he didn’t get one in those, why here? But you never know about how other things are going to play out on the horizon.

He’s joined by a few others, some well known and some lesser known. Whitaker is essentially Paulie from Rocky, but he is needed to balance Hope out and truly build him back up, doubling as the trainer and the wise sage. Rachel McAdams is strong is Hope’s wife; not sure if the chemistry is tight with Gyllenhaal, though. The daughter part of the fractured father-daughter dynamic is done well by young Ooma Lawrence. Even Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is better than expected as his character amounts to a poor man’s Don King without the vocabulary.

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They all, especially Gyllenhaal of course, combine to elevate a been-there, done-that script. If Southpaw came out in the 70’s, or even the 80’s, it may and probably would be a critical darling. Alas, this is 2015, and the film doesn’t have the benefit. It is not a bad story, per se, but at times it and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) seem overly concerned with getting to the saddening moments without regard for pacing (too slow at points) or logical transitions (too fast at points). The story igniter that makes Billy spiral is hardly even explained. Even the great score, for example, done by the late James Hormer, feels like it is turned up to 11 just to make sure the audience doesn’t forget how to feel.

However, at the end of the day it doesn’t completely strip away the desire to see Hope rise back to the top, but when you’re waiting for Billy to put it back together, these things are noticed. It all builds to a finale that too goes as one would probably expect, but it is directly wonderfully and with little to no evidence of stunt doubles, further highlighting the investment that Gyllenhaal puts into his roles.

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Southpaw comes with the expected stance and fight plan most boxing films bring to the fight, which makes it easy to scout. But, at least it knows what it is, and it still wins a lot of rounds based on talent alone.

Grade: B 

Photo credits go to g-unitfamily.com, nydailynews.com, and blogs.indiewire.com.

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