Since 2017, Midwest Film Journal has prided itself on delivering thoughtful commentary on current and classic cinema. No one piece has persisted as powerfully as our 2018 review of Den of Thieves, which we called an “unswervingly painful” waste of 140 minutes.
SEO tells us the piece’s popularity is thanks to its reference of one character’s inscrutable “Peckerwood” tattoo. Instinct tells us otherwise: People really love Gerard Butler.
Disfigured catacomb vocalist. Ripped Spartan warrior. Machine gun preacher. Secretly sweet lothario. Donut-housing cop. Dragon-slaying hero. HMS Devonshire crewman. Angry little leprechaun. Stalwart hunter killer. Geostorm-stopping scientist. Vengeful Egyptian god.
That’s but a small sampling of this Scottish export’s quarter-century run — whose body of work will be highlighted biweekly this month in a retrospective series.
We bring you … The Butler Did It.
“We’re kind of like a gang. But we have badges. Do you know what this badge means? You. Are. Done.”
Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves has been both celebrated and derided as Heat for a dumber generation. Pretty much the classic “we’re just the same, you and I” cops and robbers schtick infused with Monster Energy-fueled over-the-top masculinity and the weightless gun-worship of mid-2000s gaming culture. No pretensions of “high-culture” criminals here: Every character is a debauched ex-con, dirty cop or somewhere in between, each of them idiots. Inexplicably. It’s not surprising Thieves found a cult following in an age where schlock reigns supreme. Our own Nick Rogers described it as “overwhelmed by the aroma of ass.” Hard to argue.
Yet I’ve watched Thieves three times because damn if this isn’t Gerard Butler’s consummate performance. “Big Nick” O’Brien is an overweight, under-rested L.A. Sheriff’s Department detective ripped right from a 15-year-old’s attempt at pulp toxicity. His introduction is at the site of an armored car heist at a doughnut shop. It’s early morning. Big Nick is hungover from unsubscribed nocturnal debaucheries. Hungry. He lifts a pink-sprinkled doughnut from a box on the ground next to the splattered blood of a fallen security guard. Doesn’t let the bite stop him from talking, making muffled remarks like “I’ve got enough toxins in me to turn the Gaza Strip into a gay pride parade.”
Incoherent. Offensive. Magnificent?
At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Thieves outstays its welcome in pretty much every moment Butler isn’t simultaneously eating the scenery while shoving his face full of food. A few of Big Nick’s adventures: He stumbles home late one night to discover he accidentally texted his wife when he meant to message a stripper. She leaves, saying she needs a man who can “keep it up” (he’s drinking milk from a carton). Later, Big Nick shows up at a dinner party to abuse his wife’s new boyfriend and sign divorce papers (during which he drinks her glass of wine). Big Nick also sleeps with the stripper girlfriend of criminal mastermind Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) as a way of stealing intel (beers). In one of the blowout sequences, Big Nick shows up at a cheap teriyaki joint to tease and harass Merriman. When Merriman stands up to him, Big Nick laughs and says “Don’t get so aggro, bro!” Obviously, he’s eating teriyaki. Big Nick rarely interacts with another human being if he isn’t eating or shooting at them.
A chunky, drunk, divorced cop who says “aggro” and “bro” and regularly threatens possible informants by threatening to send them to jail to see how they “enjoy taking a shower.” Some have written that this is a role Nicolas Cage could play but nah, this is 100% Gerard Butler, the kind of meaty monster he clearly relished sinking his teeth into by yelling a lot (a sequel is now in development). Butler’s played villains before — Gods of Egypt will be covered in a few weeks — but, well, even that performance was somewhat reserved, dedicated to the delivery of exposition to support an opposing hero’s catharsis. Thieves is Butler untethered from narrative grace. Big Nick’s “emotional climax” involves a secret visit to his daughter’s school, where he talks to her through a chain-link fence before crying in his car about how badly he’s screwed up being a father. Does Big Nick actually do anything to indicate he’s learned a lesson? No, he pretty much just proceeds to blow away a bunch of innocent people’s vehicles in a poorly planned effort to stop Merriman’s crew. All the rage and machismo of a man masking his impotence.
The climactic firefight begins with a suiting-up montage wherein Team Big Nick and Team Merriman strap on vests, load magazines, practice aiming their guns. It’s porno for gun-nuts, but most erotic of all is Butler himself. Burly, bulky, bearded. Here he’s an object of extreme fetish, even more so than in Dracula 2000. Men want to be him and women in Thieves want nothing to do with him, which only adds to his perverse charm; he lacks any type of responsibility at all. Everything about Big Nick is raw, macho genre posturing, so naked in its exploitative nature that it is simply captivating.
Mitch Ringenberg reviewed the recent crooked-cops film Dragged Across Concrete, notable for casting Mel Gibson as a racist cop involved in a police brutality scandal. Dozens of thinkpieces exist about how that film’s writer-director S. Craig Zahler must hold racist views because of his evocative casting selections. I wasn’t a fan of Dragged, but Thieves makes that movie look like Baby’s First Racist Cop Drama. There are plenty of stereotypes at play in Thieves (to be fair to Gudegast – a few actively resisted), largely with regards to the script’s use of women and deification of toxically masculine figures. And yet … no thinkpieces. No attention, besides this article celebrating Butler’s ability to transform himself into one of 2018’s most risible cinematic creations.
Sure, part of me feels guilty that I love Butler in Den of Thieves so much, but I would never go so far as to say he’s a guilty pleasure. The movie itself is 140 minutes of establishing helicopter shots, sweating dudebros (Merriman has a tattoo that says “Peckerwood” — yes, really) and copious gunfire. I’ve fallen asleep and / or taken extended bathroom breaks every time I’ve watched it. I’d never recommend this movie to anyone. The extended cut adds eight extra minutes of what amounts to increasingly offensive bits for Big Nick, the last of which has him telling his ex-wife’s new boyfriend to look for a tattoo on the small of her back (Spoiler: it says “Nick.”)
Slimy, sleazy, but so egregious. Butler’s complete devotion to his role is nonetheless deeply satisfying. He has captained many ships to the bottom of the sea of quality but only here, at rock bottom, did he find his true destiny. Godspeed, Gerard Butler. Godspeed, Big Nick.
The Butler Did It continues every Monday and Thursday through April. Please check back for future installments.