Beneath an above ground train-station, a dozen cars with California license plates are lined up on an obscure street in Atlanta’s southwest area. There’s a navy-blue Toyota Corolla, a gray Nissan, and a pale gray Honda Civic. “Alright guys, pictures up, here we go,” a movie crew member announces through a loudspeaker. Clad in a black tee paired with a black bulletproof vest, Gerard Butler pretends to imitate shooting a rifle, right after the command.
A few feet in front of him, Pablo Schrieber jumps into action, running and shooting as if his life depended on it as Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson follows from behind. A slew of gunshots are fired, like furious shooting stars penetrating a black night sky with a mission to make wounds on the earth’s dark exterior. They’re loud, startling and roar with fury.
On this frigid March day, the atmosphere is grimy, dirty and desolate. Nestled on Tift Street and adjacent to the shootout location is an empty brown brick building with the words “New House Products INC” etched on it. Across from the building, propelled in the air is a big, bold ad for an injury law office, reading: “Car Wrecks Job Injuries CALL THE MAN 678-CHAPMAN,” befitting for the potential aftermath of the violence that just took place.
Butler is really on the clock and might need legal help. He is on a mission to hunt down Jackson and Schrieber’s operation of robbing the Federal Reserve Bank of Los Angeles in their latest film Den of Thieves. Butler plays undercover federal reserve agent, Nick Flanagan. Schrieber plays Merriman, an ex-marine who was just released from prison. Then there’s the dangerous man of few words, Levi Enson — 50 Cent’s character — who takes part in Merriman’s corrupt team of robbers. In the midst of this heist, there is O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing Donnie, a stoic crew member of the so-called bad guys who has something else up his sleeve.
Directed and written by Christian Gudegast, Den of Thieves is inspired by Jay Dobyns’ book, No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle. Dobyns is a retired federal agent based in Arizona, who was the first undercover agent to infiltrate the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. In the undercover agent world, it’s hard to tell at times who the bad guy really is. That’s the whole premise of the film: while Big Nick attempts to crack down the heist, he acts like one of the bad guys—if not worse.
“This is going to be interesting when you play it back,” Butler jokes sitting on a black chair as gunshots roar like never-ending thunderstorms in the background. “I don’t think Big Nick is all there. He’s kind of bordering slightly on the insane, which leads to many interesting situations,” he says of his character.
“You just never know what he’s going to do, so it leads to very big surprises,” he continues. “At times you question how much is this tactful? How much is this a psychological mind game, and how much is he a real son of a b***h?”
In one scene, Donnie is trapped inside a laden hotel room filled with women, drugs, and money. Nick forced him in there to get him to speak up. As Nick tries to coax him into spilling the beans, Donnie offers he’s just a driver for the team and doesn’t know any of the details of the team’s corrupt operation. Then the undercover cop tries to enlist Donnie as an informant. For Dobyns, this scenario is familiar.
“It’s a very edgy scene. I set those up hundreds of times during the course of my career,” Dobyns reveals. “Undercover work is a lot of times creating a situation where there are inaccurate conclusions formed from accurate observations. They are trying to create this vibe for Donnie, so he is accurately seeing them in this very questionable situation. He’s inaccurately concluding these guys are worse than the criminals. It’s all part of their hustle.”
Jackson’s character is a straight-laced criminal, whose agility allows him to run the streets. Amid his dangerous narrative, the Power executive producer took this role because he felt the project was substantial. “Good ideas don’t go away,” he explains of the film’s plot. “When people identify how good it is, it’s timeless. Creatively, music is the same thing; except it’s a thought, a vibe. Artists can take painful moments and create something special out of it.”
Beneath the danger, the film attempts to humanizing its characters. Nick’s marriage is on the rocks, and his wife takes his two daughters away. His hard exterior cracks when he visits his youngest girl at school during recess and sheds a tear when forced to say goodbye.
On the other hand, Enson hilariously threatens his daughter’s prom date that if he doesn’t keep her safe, there will be dire repercussions. Then there’s Donnie, the aloof withdrawn member of the “bad guy” team, that comically acts like a Chinese food delivery guy to make his way inside the bank.
In the end, viewers find out Donnie orchestrated the whole plan. He remained quiet as kept, and most can opine he is the lead character. When asked how he feels about playing a role of this stature, Jackson Jr. thoughtfully replies: “You can’t really necessarily look at the magnitude of the importance of your character while you’re filming because you have to stay within that realm,” he says. “When you’re reading the script you know everything because you can read it right there. But your character doesn’t so it’s a real battle with yourself to not remember what you already know.”
Den of Thieves hits theaters, Friday, January 19.