The cop thriller DEN OF THIEVES pummels us with great audio and fine video in its enjoyable Blu-ray release.
By Matt Cummings
Among the great genres of American film, Dirty Cop/Cop-on-the-Edge are among my favorites. The best of these find a way to strike a unique balance in their lead character, pitting them as much against themselves as their enemy, while at the same time adding a great ending and/or a surprise twist. And while it might not have made much noise at the box office, DEN OF THIEVES arrives on home video ready to impress, displaying a fine mix of brutality and cunning in a pleasing Blu-ray release.
The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles is exposed as a wave of violent crime rips up a city where the accused and those who pursue them enjoy uneasy parallels. Both use ultra-violence to achieve their means, with each having enjoyed such control over others that they now view themselves as superior. Leading the elite LA County Sheriffs is the corrupt officer “Big Nick” O’Brien (Gerard Butler), who’s paid a high personal price to keep the region safe over the years; he’s recently divorced and generally carries on like Chief Jerkface. But his opponent is a different type of villain: Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) is ex-military, and has pulled off several successful large heists over the past few months. He moves in opposite ways as O’Brien, whose bullish manner threatens both his job and any chance he has at capturing Ray. However, fate seemingly arrives when O’Brien nabs and beats down Ray’s driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson) who warily agrees to help take down Ray. But what O’Brien and his Regulators don’t realize is that they’re about to enter a game of cat-and-mouse, with Ray apparently pulling the strings as he plans his final and greatest heist: stealing from the LA branch of The Federal Reserve. As Merrimen and Donnie execute their plan, O’Brien and The Regulators meet them, unaware that a third party has been controlling the game all along.
DEN OF THIEVES is an compelling character study and a brutal action film that goes beyond the standard tropes of a procedural drama. Director Christian Gudegast does his best to throw the audience off, reflecting his obvious love for Michael Mann films. O’Brien really isn’t any better than Ray, a victim of his own success and hardened by recent personal events. He’s a true anti-hero, and Butler expertly executes the role with perfect chauvinism. It’s clear that we need Butler making movies like this and OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN each and every year until the sun explodes: he’s perfect in these types of roles, both in his hulking physical stature but also as evidenced in one scene where he informs Donnie just how powerful he is, showing off his badge like it’s a piece of his manhood. Schreiber matches O’Brien pound for pound in the danger department, and their final throwdown almost makes you sad that one of them has to die. But it’s so much fun to watch this play out that you simply don’t care, thanks to Writer Gudegast’s wonderfully dark script.
But that’s only half of what Gudegast has in store for us. There are two great reveals in DEN OF THIEVES that elevates the film into rarefied air; these aren’t throwaway moments but key developments in the story that takes way more chances than it needs to but succeeds because of its tireless work ethic. That’s not to say that DEN doesn’t have its problems: it’s a bit too long, giving too much time to O’Brien being flat-out embarrassing in front of his family and team, while comparing that to Merrimen’s workman-like manner. The dichotomy between them is one of my favorite parts, but after awhile you find yourself re-cutting the film rather than enjoying it based purely on its many merits. Try not to do that.
It’s clear that Gudgegast has something here, but its insistence on slow-motioning us through the first act might have been the reason why audiences stayed away. Too bad, because most of that exposition is so much fun to take in. There’s no doubt that DEN OF THIEVES will play well at home, so long as you either haven’t seen HEAT or you’re fine with a pseudo re-telling of the same.
Universal presents DEN OF THIEVES with a turgid – and impressive – MPEG4-AVC transfer. The grittiness of LA comes alive as Cinematographer Terry Stacey bathes us in pools of sweat and blood, trash-littered streets, and a brownish color palette. Clothes show off unkempt wrinkles, while weapons reveal dents and other imperfections. Butler’s graying beard shows off individual strands, while tattoos and pockmarked faces lend more lifelike details. As mentioned, this isn’t a color-realistic film, but the tones really lend to the film’s overall darker vibe. Skin tones do suffer, but that’s the point here; our characters are meant to be terribly flawed, and Stacey executes the look so very well. Outdoor images – which sometimes degrade in other film to become a victim to overexposure – come off well here, with speeding cars and characters looking great while doing being less-intentioned. Shadows add to the squalor that is Crime Noir, especially in that twist scene I mentioned before; notice how shadows effortlessly move from light to dark without quickly descending either way. And of course, Universal has made sure there’s no aliasing, banding, or edge enhancement present. DEN OF THIEVES is another great performer for Universal, who proves once again that every title matters to them, not just the ones that make them the most bank.
Universal presents DEN OF THIEVES in a heart-pounding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that’s as loud as they come. Universal, always the leader in audio transfers, rewards us throughout DEN with a pounding and pulsing track that utilizes all five satellites to near-perfection. Dialogue is pushed out the center by merely turning it up rather than separating it entirely as they’ve done before. That’s excusable, because you never find yourself adjusting the receiver’ volume control (aka playing The Remote Game). Rich textures flow from the right and left speakers, sometimes revealing cars moving left-to-right or the opposite. And then there’s the surrounds, which provide us a mostly immersive experience with precinct noise, crowd noise, and the occasional gunfire. The LFE is a beast here, booming and thumping throughout the production but never overdoing itself, as if a movie about hookers, drugs, guns, and fierce interplay weren’t enough. The score by master Composer Cliff Martinez echoes throughout reminding me of his work on TRAFFIC. It’s just another reason why DEN OF THIEVES is such a rewarding experience.
DEN OF THIEVES contains a good number of Supplements, all of which are displayed in HD:
- Alternate Ending
- Alpha Males (2:15): The cast discusses how good and evil play in the gray areas of the film.
- Into the Den: Director Gudegast and the cast break down the parallels between The Regulators and villainous band, along with their strengths.
- Alameda Corridor: Members of the cast and crew discuss filming the climactic battle.
- Outtakes and Deleted Scenes
- Theatrical Trailers
- Audio Commentary with Director Christian Gudegast and Producer Tucker Tooley: This is a thoroughly enjoyable commentary, as the first-time director takes us through his experiences, but also dabbles in several nice technical breakdowns. I love it when directors geek out like this, so count me extremely pleased with the results.
Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/Digital HD copy, sadly with no slipcase. That’s too bad, as a film like this – which will grow as more people take a chance on it – deserves a slip. There is no interior artwork, and we were not aware of any special editions or alternate packaging.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
It’s too bad that DEN OF THIEVES only managed a paltry $45m domestically in its box office release; but it stands poised to make more in the home market, hopefully solidifying its place as one of the top Dirty Cop films of the past 20 years. The story twists really move the film into new territory, but its brutality and graying characters will keep you enjoying this film on multiple plays. Video and audio are excellent, and the commentary is definitely worth your time. You may want a shower afterwards, but only because the film will make you sweat as you fall head-first into a world that rewards you for sticking around. This one comes highly recommended.
DEN OF THIEVES is rated R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity and has a runtime of 140 minutes.