By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—“300’s” Gerard Butler and rapper/actor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson head up a predominantly male cast in “Den of Thieves,” a testosterone-fueled heist movie that feels almost like an Old-School shoot-‘em-up throwback amidst Hollywood’s current fetish for female empowerment flicks.
Butler, 48, plays the alpha male leader of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s Major Crimes unit, who is known to ignore proper law enforcement procedures in order to track and capture the city’s worst criminal offenders. Though effective at his all-consuming job, it’s taken a toll on his personal life, and that pressure is getting to him. When an armored truck is commandeered in a bloody shootout, “Big Nick” O’Brien (Butler) and his crew go after a band of perpetrators, convinced something bigger is being planned because the stolen truck was carrying no cash. 50 Cent plays Enson, an ex-soldier explosives expert on the heist crew run by a fellow ex-military crook named Merriman (Pablo Schreiber, “Orange is the New Black”). Well-organized and dangerous, the crew is indeed plotting a bank heist, but then uses the measly proceeds from that haul to arm themselves to the teeth to go after the motherlode —targeting the regional Federal Reserve Bank—which could net them a cool $30 million in used currency set for destruction, if all goes according to plan.
Throughout, Merriman and Big Nick, who played on rival football teams in their youth, try to intimidate each other, each knowing a violent showdown is imminent. Caught in the middle is a young ex-con bartender named Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr., “Straight Outta Compton”), hired to serve as the outlaws’ getaway driver, yet still untested and mistrusted. Will Donnie expose the plot when he is picked up and beaten by Big Nick and his crew or will he prove to be a vital asset in the brazen heist?
First time director Christian Gudegast directs from a screenplay he wrote, inspired by the dubious distinction that the City of Angels holds as having more bank robberies than any other metropolitan city in the world. He previously wrote the screenplay for the 2016 terrorist drama “London Has Fallen,” in which Butler starred, as well as male-dominated action movies including “The Rundown” and “A Man Apart.”
Butler and 50 Cent were joined by the filmmaker and other cast members at a press conference to discuss making “Den of Thieves.”
Q: What training did you go through in arms training and physical training?
50 Cent: Let me explain to you, this is my movie. I’m overwhelmed by the love that Gerard Butler has shown me from being in it. The publicity, the marketing, the promotion of it—this guy is amazing. We need more people like Gerard Butler in the world.
Schreiber: We had two weeks of training. We showed up a few weeks prior to shooting. We had two separate camps: Gerry’s the star of our movie, but he’s also our producer. He was pretty insistent that (the cops and the thieves) stay away from each other, which created a vibe of healthy competition between the two camps. We had a military trainer who had a Special Forces background. He really whipped us into shape, which was really important from our side (the thieves) of things. It was a very efficient team that looked like they’d had a Special Forces background. So, we trained a lot.
Q: What was it like for you, Gerard?
Butler: I was trained by an undercover policeman and a captain from the L.A. Sheriff’s Department’s Major Crimes Division. We were schooled in their manner of fighting, shooting stance. There are a lot of subtle differences. It was about drilling drilling drilling with different guns and ammunition, (reloading) and being fast and efficient. I already was working with these guys a few months before because Christian Gudegast and I have been involved in this movie together for a long time.
Q: How would you describe your character in this film?
Butler: My character’s called Big Nick O’Brien, and I weighed 200 pounds at the time. I kept saying to Christian, “Let’s just call him ‘Nick,’” and he was like, “No, he’s ‘Big Nick’. You gotta get big.” I ended up putting on 25 pounds. I had to around these guys, because it’s probably the most masculine cast I’ve been around since “300.” That’s another reason why I wanted to keep us all separate—look at these guys—I’ve gotta have some self-confidence.
With my team, it was as much as about bonding emotionally and psychologically, so we spent a lot of time together. We’d go out to panic rooms together and paintballing. We went up to the mountains for a weekend and really became fantastic friends. I feel you really see that in the movie—that invisible connection, that bond, that brotherhood.
Gudegast: We just wanted everybody to train. They did their own stunts, their own shooting. Their training was very specific but they all were able to get into the flow of their characters by the time we started shooting. They were all in it. 50 (Cent) almost broke his neck. It was no joke.
50 Cent: That’s why this is my movie. I almost broke my neck. To me, the poster’s upside down. Turn it around.
Q: “Den of Thieves” balances the action with the characters’ family lives. Gerard, your character gets into hot water with his wife with the misdirected text message he meant to send to his mistress.
Butler: That was a mistake. I’m never going to hear the end of this.
50 Cent: That’s what was unique about the actual script. A lot of times, (scripts) don’t establish the flaws in the characters that people can relate to. The circumstance of having Enson not be conscious of his investment in the family and yet still be willing to be a part of the robbery felt so good, so efficient, that they’re not going to get caught anyway.
Butler: One of the things that I loved about the movie was that it’s a very smart, complex heist movie that you (the audience) could get involved with. It’s compelling and has a lot of action but it also gives you time to breathe. You get to sit with these characters and get to know them, and show how bruised and ravished they can be from having this lifestyle, and how it affects them, their families and turns the clichés on their heads, and show the cops, who, ultimately, are the good guys trying to bring down the bad guys, but sometimes they’re kind of like naughty boys, because it’s a troubling world they live in, and it definitely has an impact and causes an impact and requires a certain amount of release and disconnect. That gives a nice interesting allegiance that the audience has between the good guys and the bad guys, and the way you journey with them—you swap from side to side. That’s one of the things that’s very different about this movie.
Gudegast: The end goal was really the final action sequence. The whole point was we wanted to audience to care about everyone equally. They’re all just human beings. As the writer, I wanted the audience to understand everybody’s motivations, know them, like them, good, bad or indifferent. Cops and criminals—it’s a yin-yang thing. It’s a symbiotic relationship. One doesn’t exist without the other. They almost appreciate each other for that. They’re basically the same kind of dude. Under any other circumstance, they’d get along, go drink beers and hang out. So, there’s a mutual respect and appreciation. The whole purpose of the film was to build towards that (finale) and understand everybody and care about everybody equally.
Butler: In the old days, they would have been warriors on the battlefield. They kind of came from the same village. They all knew each other growing up and they ain’t really that different. It’s a small amount that will cause them to step on either side of the line.
50 Cent: There’s a point where I get shot in the film and Christian was like, “No, you didn’t do that the right way.” I said, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” (Note: 50 Cent was shot nine times in 2000, spending 13 days in the hospital.)
Q: There is such intense action in this film that required you to be in top physical shape. How did you decompress at the end of the day or between scenes?
Butler: You could always find me behind my SUV pumping weights.
Q: Your social media posts from the set show you guys being all lighthearted and having fun.
50 Cent: That’s all me. We had an amazing time with each other, just hanging out together was really cool. I was just so excited that they would take the time out to be with me … to make my movie.
Q: Christian, what was your research on how the Federal Reserve handles and disposes of its old money?
Gudegast: The whole world, the characters, are based on an amalgam of true stories. I went to the Federal Reserve three times and I got Gerry (Butler) in there once. Of course, you can’t photograph it. You’ve got to commit everything to memory. The environment there is breathtaking. It’s a fascinating process when you think about where banks put their money. What’s the room that all the banks put their money into; and it’s the vault. Outside are all the counting rooms that count the denomination of the bills. There’s the noise of the bills being shredded constantly. It’s trippy to think it’s just paper there. A million dollars, right there. It’s fascinating. We committed everything to memory and tried to reproduce it to the best of our ability.
Q: Gerard, we’ve seen dirty cops depicted on screen before but Big Nick O’Brien is pretty scary?
Butler: (deadpan) I’m starting to take offense. You guys are just misunderstanding who I am.
Q: Did you hang out with some scary cops that influenced your character?
Butler: Yes. One of them gave me a lot in terms of backstory. I went to boot camp where we were schooled in this world. It’s as much the stories themselves, and the reality of what it means every day, especially undercover, to go and live in that stress every moment, knowing that if one slip happens you’re a dead man. My character is on the verge of being somewhat out of control. He just thinks and acts impulsively.
Gudegast: Big Nick and his guys are all Sheriff’s Department specifically. They run the prisons, so they’re in constant contact with the worst of the worst. It takes a certain kind of individual to do that job. They have to be ******* tough. By the time they (are promoted) to Major Crimes, they’re not nice people when they go to work.
Butler: When you meet them, they’re the nicest guys ever.
O’Shea Jackson Jr.: Oh, I don’t know about that.
Butler: None of us have to deal with taking down the scumbags that they do on a daily basis and the risks they have to take, moment to moment. They take a lot of flak for what they do, and sometimes it’s deserved, but when you spend some time with them, you see what they go through. They have a real brotherhood and I see them as heroes.
Q: O’Shea, your character is choked and beaten up by Big Nick, who is trying to extract information about the outlaw crew from you. What was it like shooting that scene?
O’Shea Jackson Jr.: In the beginning of my acting career, I seem to have a theme of being abused by Los Angeles law enforcement. I let Gerard know it’s OK, I’m used to this. He didn’t really want to choke me out in the hotel room. He’s a good dude. I’m a pro wrestling fan so I know how to get a nice choke off. This was definitely the most physical role I’ve taken but I knew I was in good hands and I was working with a pro. So, I wasn’t in danger during the making of “Den of Thieves.”
Butler: We beat the **** out of him because that’s supposed to be a very intimidating scene. He’s such a nice guy that we knew we had to start slapping him around, even between takes. He took it and it really allowed the scene to work. It got pretty brutal at times, though, especially when I started to choke him. He took it so well. My jaw dropped at the brilliance of his performance. Every time he would give us something different and every time he let us do it again. When I watch that scene now, I think, “That’s so gross. I think I went a bit too far.” He took it like a champ, though. It wasn’t easy.
Q: O’Shea, can you talk about playing Donnie Wilson, who is multilayered in this film?
O’Shea Jackson Jr.: When Christian (Gudegast, the director) and I first met, he asked me how I prepared for “Straight Outta Compton,” and I talked to him about how my father was always playing chess. He’s always in his head. That’s a quality that Donnie has as well. Donnie’s the new dude. I’m brought it by my friend, who works at the same bar. It doesn’t work out too well for him and I’m left with these people who don’t trust me in a crew that is built on years of trust. So, I’m kind of swimming with sharks. The police kind of have their way. On land, there are a bunch of wolves, and Donnie is caught in-between.
Gudegast: Casting O’Shea was important because the character had to have a fine balance. You had to feel sorry for him a little bit because he’s being pulled by both sides and they don’t really trust him. At the same time, he can’t be a total fish out of water; he has to belong. He just happens to be around apex alpha males. But it’s a fine line and that’s why O’Shea was cast in the movie. He was perfect for (the role).
Q: Do you think there’s an opportunity for a sequel?
Gudegast: I’m all in.