The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle, Heat's Vincent Hanna, "Dirty Harry" Callahan... all sit comfortably among the Parthenon of cinematic detectives. Den of Thieves' "Big Nick" O'Brien (Gerard Butler) doesn't quite share that status, yet he might be the most honest depiction of the cop-on-the-edge trope. While Vincent Hanna chips cocaine and Popeye Doyle drinks during his shifts, both men are functional enough to discern the movements and motives of the criminals. How else would Doyle have driven that Pontiac LeMans through New York? Neither Doyle nor Hanna is particularly convincing as an addict, but O'Brien cuts the right profile on appearances alone. He's puffy and bloated; his weariness based either on impatience or a splitting headache from the night before. Before he walks into any scene, it's conceivable that he just downed a six-pack.
At his introduction into the film, O'Brien waltzes onto a crime scene where multiple men were killed and eats a donut right off of the asphalt. And just as quickly as he takes a bite, he tosses the rest of the donut towards evidence nearby, but not before chastising an FBI agent for being vegan. A move like that is emblematic of the risky behavior that addicts routinely engage in without any thought of the ramifications. But that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the decisions that O'Brien makes. Decisions like beginning a relationship with a potential informant (O’Shea Jackson’s Donnie) by telling him "I’d fuck you" before reiterating his manhood again by proclaiming "Kidding!" Or then doubling down by tasing and dragging that informant to a hotel. And, for the capper, heavily hint that your informant is a C.I. at a dinner with the rest of his crew. These scenes serve two purposes: one, for Gerard Butler to camp up the proceedings of a movie that desperately needed his presence; two, to elevate Den of Thieves above its reputation as a schlocky Heat remake by analyzing the role of on-the-edge cops in action film.
Butler's alcoholic action hero is a reminder that the substance-dependent police officers who so often pop up in genre films are unrealistic. Popeye Doyle was pig-headed, but he didn't go out of his way to destroy his own investigation by revealing informants. Put O'Brien in The French Connection and that film would be over in about twenty minutes. Cops like Doyle used intuition, detail, and persistence to close cases whereas O'Brien is something else entirely. He’s a creature that relies purely on id, adrenaline, and beer. Midway through the film, O'Brien refers to Pablo Schreiber's crew as robbery addicts and concludes he'll nab them when "sooner or later, they'll need their fix." The problem there is he has them on multiple pieces of evidence already. All he has to do is arrest them, but he seems to pride himself on forcing this case to end in a shootout.
In fairness, Doyle and Hanna do share one characteristic with their Monster-swilling foil: their inability to maintain relationships. A highlight of Den of Thieves comes when Gerard Butler is driving back home - still drunk - around 6 a.m. listening to "What It's Like" and sneaking into his house to avoid waking up his wife and kids. After being confronted with his sleeping around, his wife leaves him and takes the kids. Later that week, O'Brien - who clearly can't resist himself at this point - shows up drunkenly to ruin his wife's date. The fact that O’Brien has a license to carry a gun is a concern, that the city of Los Angeles trusts him to use it is more distressing.
Den of Thieves isn't a great film, but it feels like Butler's performance should be celebrated. Not since To Live and Die in L.A.'s Agent Chance (William Petersen) has a loose cannon been given a chance to steal a film so thoroughly. By the time O'Brien has stared off into the middle distance for the umpteenth time, it's clear that this camp masterpiece performance, intentionally or not, has set a new bar for the standard alcoholic action hero. While Den of Thieves made more headlines for its twist, I still find myself thinking about Butler's character more than anything else. So many inexplicable choices that don't resemble any coherent thought are delivered fast and furiously. Butler invites audiences to completely rethink what their expectations of lawmen on film are, and why so many cinematic icons are cops who have substance issues.