Watching two recent action movie additions to the Netflix lineup, “Den of Thieves” with Gerard Butler, and “Triple 9” with seemingly half the B-list male actors in Hollywood, really drove home a point that I’ve been thinking about lately: modern Hollywood has become obsessed with “complex” characters. Complex characters are more interesting to them. Besides, in their worldview, nobody is all pure good or pure evil. Except Trump.
The problem, though, is that in their obsession with complex characters screenwriters have forgotten that “complex” does not automatically equal “interesting” or “likeable”, and that American audiences, especially audiences of action movies, need a main character they identify with, like, or love to hate. When you don’t have that, your TV show gets cancelled, or your movie bombs at the box office.
Compounding the problem is that quite often, complex character = jackhole.
I was reminded of this recently when Michael Cudlitz appeared on an episode of Talking Dead. Cudlitz, a well-known character actor who most recently portrayed Abraham Ford on The Walking Dead, was on Talking Dead (The Walking Dead aftershow) to talk about the current episode of TWD which he had directed.
Cudlitz stated that he’d been interested in directing a TV episode since he’d been on the TV show Southland, but that the show had ended “prematurely” and so he hadn’t gotten the chance to direct until now.
Um, no, sorry Mr. Cudlitz, Southland (2009-2013) ended right when it should have. Southland was a procedural cop show that started on NBC and moved to TNT. I loved the first two seasons of the show, but bailed on it partway into the last (5th) season when I realized I didn’t like any of the main characters on the show. The only character I liked was the partner to Detective Lydia Adams, and he had a very minor supporting role.
The writers of Southland decided every character on the show needed to be complex, and as a result they left the audience with no one to identify with, like, root for, or even love to hate.
For example, let’s take Cudlitz’ character, Officer John Cooper. He starts the series as a cynical veteran cop training a rookie officer Ben Sherman, played by Ben McKenzie (who moved on to play Jim Gordon on Gotham). Cudlitz’ Cooper both loves and loves to hate his job, and tells Sherman that the job will give him “a front row seat to the greatest show on earth.” Even though he’s kind of a jerk he’s very entertaining and good at his job and fun to watch onscreen.
By the end of the series Cudlitz’ character is dealing with an addiction to pain pills for his bad back, is burned out, and is no longer likable. At all. Oh, and partway through the second season the writers decided his character would be more interesting if he was gay. Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) turned into a bitch. Shawn Hatosy’s character was always a train wreck, which was fine when he was the lone character who was screwed up. C. Thomas Howell’s character Dewey Dudek was always written as an absolute jackhole, however the problem was that he wasn’t necessarily a likable or entertaining jackhole.
Like I said, the writers left the audience no one to identify with, like, or love to hate, and so (like me) they left the show.
This lack of a character to root for or even love to hate (as opposed to just hate) popped into my head again while watching Den of Thieves (2018) starring Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber (who most people will recognize as playing Kris “Tanto” Paranto in 13 Hours).
Den of Thieves has a great opening action scene and a lot of pretty realistic gun play, including the use of an M249 Para. The end action scene, a set piece in a traffic jam, is very well done, and I really liked the Usual Suspects-like twist at the end.
Den of Thieves tries really really hard to be Heat v2.0, but falls short on several levels. Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) became a classic and features amazing writing, including two leads (Pacino and DeNiro) facing off as cop and robber. Mann is a genius because he gets you rooting for both sides in this drama, so that no matter who wins you’re going to be both sad and happy.
Den of Thieves stars Gerard Butler as the head of the LASD’s Major Crimes unit. So he’s a cop, which makes him the good guy, right? Well, not really. He breaks the law all the time, seems to be a jerk to everyone but the guys he works with, and is wife is divorcing him after the last straw is broken, namely Butler drunk-texting his wife by mistake instead of the hooker he spent the night with. And then he forces a fight with his wife in front of his two little girls.
Pablo Schreiber, as the head of the bank robbery crew, seems like a more likable character than Gerard Butler’s cop. In fact, Schreiber’s stick-up crew seems to be filled with guys that are nicer and more interesting (and more professional) than the cops working with Butler. Except the screenwriters never really develop any of the characters on either side except for Butler’s ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien, and he’s a philandering alcoholic unprofessional unlikable asshole. Most of the characters on both sides are just left in the background with not much to do or say, even though you’ll recognize a lot of familiar faces including Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson.
Den of Thieves wasn’t horrible, but with no one to root for, it’s hard to get invested in the action scenes.
Triple 9 (2016) stars just about every successful working non-A-list action movie actor in Hollywood at the time—Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor (no, I have no idea how to pronounce that either), Aaron Paul, and Norman Reedus, in addition to Kate Winslet and Gal Gadot, with Woody Harrelson perhaps being the biggest name in the movie. I know how the filmmakers were able to get so many talented actors for this movie: on the surface, this movie seems like it could have been a hugely successful crime drama—Heat v2.0 again. It’s a heist movie set and filmed in Atlanta, and has a great gritty look and feel to it. It’s got one great running gun battle set in the projects that you’ll find very memorable.
Except…the movie gives you nobody to root for. At the time the hottest actor in the movie was Normal Reedus (thanks to The Walking Dead) but he gets killed off less than halfway through the film—with no real explanation given, so we have to guess. Some of the bad guys don’t seem so bad at all. Guess what? They all die.
Woody Harrelson is the lead detective, so he should be a good guy, but not only is he an alcoholic, for some reason (I suspect Harrelson suggested this) he’s a drug user. This was a huge misstep. The only true good guy is Casey Affleck, and he’s got a supporting role. And in the climax of the film…he does nothing. So a movie that should have been a modern classic just leaves you feeling unsatisfied, with a bad taste in your mouth.
If you’re looking for a good bank robbery movie with a lot of great action scenes, a movie that really is considered to be the only movie thus far deserving of being compared to Heat, go see The Town (2010). Ben Affleck both directed and starred in this movie about a heist crew in Boston, and he seems to understand what audiences want to see. Affleck’s character Doug MacRay is a criminal, but he’s not a bad guy, and seems much more likable than the FBI Agents (including Jon Hamm and Titus Welliver) pursuing him, or the other criminals in Boston he has to deal with, like local Irish Mob boss Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite). In fact, MacRay’s whole crew is filled with likable and/or interesting characters, including Jeremy Renner’s hot-headed James Coughlin