Gerard Butler’s 2018 Hollywood blockbuster ‘Den of Thieves’ is arguably the most implicit, yet pertinent, cultural reference to goalkeeping of all time…
Den of Thieves’ $50 million-plus profit at the box office upon its release four years ago was testament to the strong reviews it received from critics. Gerard Butler, playing the typically Gerard Butler-esque ‘Big Nick’ (a maverick detective with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department) leads the cast in the big-hitting, all-guns-blazing, CGI filled feature, and is supported by Pablo Schreiber and O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Yet, despite the bold and brazen bank heist that Schreiber (playing Ray Merrimen, a corrupted Marine turned gangster extraordinaire) and his crew attempt to pull off at the Federal Reserve Bank in Downtown Los Angeles, it’s a much more implicit thematic link that unites Den of Thieves with the curious world of goalkeeping.
O'Shea Jackson Jr., son of Hollywood legend Ice Cube, plays Donnie, Merrimen’s crew’s getaway driver. His characterisation is one of perhaps blind, almost reluctant boldness, an aura of unsuspecting, a tinge of innocence, and as it’s later revealed, a razor sharp mind that establishes Donnie’s connections to the persona of the goalkeeper.
Explicitly, Donnie’s the young gun of the crew doing the menial dirty work. He’s there as a buffer; to cushion the suspicions of onlookers towards Merrimen’s gang and take the hard hits (and likely arrest) first. If there’s blame to be attributed, Donnie will be the first to be condemned. Yet, under his somewhat innocent demeanour, Jackson Jr.’s character sees the game on another level.
Donnie pulls all the strings - leading from the bottom - and no viewer nor character would ever suspect it.
Donnie is in total control of his environment. He keeps things unspectacular, working in a bar where he is first approached by Nick. Nick deduces that Donnie is working with Merrimen’s gang as their getaway driver, but doesn’t appear to be directly involved with the gang.
Implicitly, even in his role as the getaway driver, he is an integral part of any heist. He’s the ‘last line’, and the success of the heist depends on whether he can get Merrimen’s crew out of harm’s way before the cops arrive.
Likewise, Donnie plays - from the outset - an unglamorous role. When a criminal gang is exposed, does the getaway driver make the headlines? No. Would the gang be successful without the getaway driver? No. Are you seeing the goalkeeping links yet…?
Director Christian Gudegast goes further to portray Donnie’s almost childlike innocence in and victimisation by the gang, when he is interrogated at gunpoint by Merrimen on suspicion of being an informant to the authorities. Prior to this, Donnie is confronted by Nick and others working for the police.
Nick reminds Donnie that ‘we [Nick and his associates] are the kind of guys who just shoot you’; Donnie sits directly in the firing line throughout the movie, ready to be taken down first when anything goes wrong.
As the film reaches its climax, Donnie only becomes more unsuspecting, slightly comical (entering the vaults of the Federal Reserve dressed as a delivery driver) and all the more powerful. Gudegast refrains from deploying any chance for dramatic irony as Donnie’s reality is not revealed until the gang’s getaway fails (interestingly, the gang fails without Donnie as the getaway driver…a vital cog without whom the team falls apart).
Donnie disables the electromagnetic pulse in the Reserve building to disable the security room’s cameras, making it possible for Merrimen and his gang to proceed with the mission. Yet, as Donnie escapes the building, he does not follow on with the gang, and is not seen again until the film’s final scenes.
Nick catches up with Donnie once more before the title’s close. Now working in a German-themed pub in London across the road from the diamond exchange, Jackson Jr’s character - in his customary cool and almost teasing demeanour - explains why the plot failed, and why Merrimen had escaped.
Unbeknownst to both him and the authorities at the time, the gang had escaped with only bags full of shredded paper - the Federal Reserve’s funds were all accounted for after the ‘robbery’.
So, what happened?
Well, Donnie was pulling the strings all along. Physically beaten, an unsuspecting maverick, and in complete control of those around him, the getaway driver had double crossed Merrimen and his gang to ship the actual money offshore to Panama. In the pub, you can hear football on the TV in the background.
A series of jump cuts between Butler’s face and a team photo featuring Donnie as the pub team’s goalkeeper edge the audience closer towards a brilliant twist. As the shots pan out, Donnie’s voice comes in over the top:
‘I'm in complete control of my environment. People don't even know’
And that's when the twist hits you.
The goalkeeper is the mastermind.
Now planning his next robbery - the diamond exchange - Nick leaves the bar with a touch of almost bittersweet respect for Donnie, the man who they thought would be the easiest to knock down.
O’Shea Jackson Jr acts an incredibly implicit yet wholly obvious portrayal of the life of a goalkeeper in this all-guns-blazing Hollywood big hitter, leaving the footballing world with one key didactic message:
Don’t mess with a goalkeeper.
Artwork by Juan Carlos Zeledon and Nathan Mawawa