AS AN ELITE LAWMAN TAKING ON A CREW COMMITTING “AN IMPOSSIBLE CRIME” IN THE JANUARY 19 RELEASED DEN OF THIEVES, THE SCOTLAND BORN STAR OF 300 AND OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN COMPARES THIS GRITTY HEIST FILM TO CLASSICS LIKE DOG DAY AFTERNOON AND THE FRENCH CONNECTION
BY MATT SCANLON, WITH REPORTING BY SUSAN HORNIK
The largest heist in American history by non white collar criminals happened in 1972; on March 24 of that year, professional thief Amill Dinsilo, after forming a crew that included his nephews, brother, brother in law, and two alarm hacking experts, broke into the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel, California by dynamite blasting a hole in its roof, and managed to make off with some $30 million (that’s $180 million today, folks). If it weren’t for the similarity of the crime to one committed in Ohio just months earlier by the same crew, they might’ve gotten away with it, but police identified the pattern and the criminals, who were ultimately jailed. (A riveting 2013 book, Inside the Vault: The True Story of a Master Bank Burglar, by Dinsilo himself, is an account of the events.)
In formulating the script for Den of Thieves a January 19 released crime saga that follows the exploits of an elite unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s Department as it takes on the state’s most notorious robbery crew the film’s screenwriter and producer, Christian Gudegast, also making his directorial debut, wanted even bigger storytelling fish to fry. His tale is a study of two forces of nature “Big Nick” Flanagan, played by Gerard Butler on the law enforcement side, and Pablo Schreiber (13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Orange Is the New Black) on the other, and what’s on the line is not just the $30 million score that Ray Merriment (Schreiber) and his crew, the Outlaws, is planning, but where they plan to steal it from a Federal Reserve Bank. Among other complexities embraced in this tale of “an impossible crime” is the tantalizing psychological similarities these cops and robbers share, as well as the often unintended casualties they leave in their wakes.
The 48 year old Butler almost missed the opportunity to take on the project, one that, he explained, “combines some of my favorite films, like Heist and Heat.” The star of 300, Gods of Egypt, and Olympus Has Fallen actually sat on Gudegast’s script for months, despite being urged to read it.
“I think I was burned out. My agent kept saying, ‘Have you read it?’ but I just wasn’t in the mood, said Butler in a Diamond Film Productions (the film’s production company, along with Butler’s own company, G BASE) interview. “Then I read it one weekend, and it got better and better. I called my agent and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me to read this, because it’s incredible!’” Thereafter, Butler stayed involved throughout the lengthy development process, eventually bringing his business and producing partner, Alan Siegel, along as well.
Butler’s take on “Big Nick” had to, the Scotland born actor explained, emphasize the bombastic.
“He lives in this world where you have to be willing to go to any length to get ahead, and it’s incredibly dangerous,” said Butler. “At first you think he’s a punk, but as the character evolves, you understand he’s an obsessive and that the pressure is playing on him. He’s blown up his life for the job and is emotionally bleeding out because of it.”
Gudegast and Butler met over a number of what a Diamond Film Productions release described as “raucous” dinners to mold the character. “[‘Big Nick’] is a silverback gorilla who devours everything within reach,” laughed Gudegast. “He’s a force. He walks in and just takes over the environment. Nick is classic…funny, and a badass. He’s in major crimes [LA’s Major Crimes Division], so he’s dealing with the worst of the worst…hunting them. We drilled that character all the way down, and Gerry was unbelievable.”
Co starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Evan Jones, and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, the movie is set in a city with the highest rate of bank robberies in the world, and there’s little Rodeo Drive glam on hand. Instead, the typical backdrops are seedier and seldom film depicted neighborhoods like El Segundo, Torrance, Long Beach, and Lakewood. “The area embodies a blue collar experience that’s white, black, Latino, and Pacific Islander, and encompasses punk rockers, skaters, surfers, and street gangs,” said Gudegast, who is from L.A. “So much of who they are is in the clothes they wear and the cars they drive.”
Early on, when the director and cinematographer Terry Stacey (A Dog’s Purpose, Elvis and Nixon) talked about the look of the film, he referenced photographer Andreas Gursky, famed for capturing hauntingly large and often bleak man made spaces. “I have Gursky all over my walls,” Gudegast enthused, “I knew immediately that we spoke the same visual language.”
In a series of escalating confrontations, the city becomes, producers explained, “a giant chessboard, with each side strategically excising the other’s pawns, rooks, bishops, knights and queens, to reach a thrilling, and entirely unexpected checkmate,” adding that, “There are no heroes or villains in this face off just skilled, equally matched opposites.”
“Merriman has just gotten out of jail after six years,” said Schreiber of his icy character. “He’s reassembling his guys, and it comes to his attention that the Los Angeles branch of the Fed has never been robbed,” adding that, “there’s a real nihilism to the character. He’s not afraid of death and actually embraces the idea of it. If he’s going to go out, he wants to go out on his terms. There’s no way he’ll ever let Nick cuff him.”
“What I love about this movie is that it has a taste, an ingredient, of many of my favorites, including touches of Dog Day Afternoon and The French Connection,” said Butler. “But it stands entirely on its own. It may be a complex heist film, but there’s a surprising amount of heart and emotion. It has the potential to become one of those unforgettable movies because of the characters we’ve created.”
Fans of Butler’s action flicks won’t have to wait long for another taste. Currently in production is the Ric Roman Waugh directed Angel Has Fallen, in which he reprises his Olympus has Fallen role of agent Mike Banning, who becomes the target of terrorists while in mid flight on Air Force One. The film is scheduled for release later this year.