Today’s post is not about politics or a cause, it will be about something we all enjoy, movies! Looking at this poster, you may wonder, “Where have I seen this movie?” This is not a poster for a movie, it’s a poster for a script that I completed and have been trying to market to Hollywood for several years now. Yes, film writing has been one of my passions for almost 25 years, and I have completed 5 scripts and one novel.
Tomahawk is an action script with a chase across the East of the Mississippi when “a flustered former Marine wrongfully accused of looting the Iraqi museum, snatches $50 million worth of stolen diamonds from his former scumbag Staff Sergeant and finds himself on the run from the thieves and the FBI.”
Back in 2008, I spent 71 days in the hospital and multiple brain surgeries, which caused the loss of my manufacturing business and the loss of our family’s commercial property on the north-side of Chicago. The state of Illinois had a program called “Put Illinois to work.” Private, public and non-profit businesses were encouraged to sign on with Put Illinois to Work. Eligible participants would be matched to subsidized employment opportunities with these worksites in the hope that they might transition into an un-subsidized position at the program's conclusion.
I got lucky; I was matched with one of the local print shops, where a senior named Sargon and his son Robert owned the place. Robert, the son, was gracious and taught me how to use Photoshop. I worked for them for about 10 months, helping the old man run the place and do some of the graphic designs. This is when I decided to make a poster for my script “Tomahawk” and head out to the Screenwriters convention in Los Angeles. The convention was successful, where you pitch your work to low level employees of a major studio or production company, mainly mail-room people or receptionists.
The idea of making a poster for a script was unprecedented, and I was the first one to do it. People were so impressed that I received 17 requests. The original poster had Brad Pitt on it as the main character, Tom Hawkins, as “Tomahawk.” Also, one of the posters had a picture of Gerard Butler because Mr. Butler was one of my choices. When writers write a script, it’s always helpful to have a face for your character, and a famous face is always better because, ultimately, that is every screenwriter’s aspiration.
I was able to finish the entire movie. Gerard Butler was really incredible. I thought the movie itself was OK because the action in the movie was not a manifestation of the unfolding drama but rather an action sequence that may not be incidental to the plot.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I thought that Hollywood was on a freeze, and some of the people might be available to take a look at my script. I looked up Mr. Butler on Facebook, and he had an official page. I messaged him with the poster. I had made the poster with a few other actors, such as Brad Pitt and an upcoming actor named Tony Schiena.
Tony worked on an action film named “Darc” with Julius Nasso, the producer of some of Steven Seagal’s movies, such as “On Deadly Ground” and “Under Siege.” Somehow, I was able to put “Tomahawk” in the hands of Mr. Nasso, and my contact gave him a call about the script. Mr. Nasso said, “It’s a great script, and if we end up making it, tell George I will take care of him.” Schiena also read the script and loved it.
Nasso had spent one year in prison for extortion after a tense argument and threats between him and Seagal. He was out to re-establish himself as a producer after Hollywood distanced itself from him. So “Darc” was his break to get back into the business. The movie bombed, it was poorly made and had no good reviews. Therefore, the dream of “Tomahawk’ being produced by Nasso vanished.
I messaged Mr. Butler on Facebook with the poster with his picture on it. He wrote back, “How you doing?” I replied, “I’m good. You were awesome in Den of Thieves. I have been writing for many years and have completed 5 scripts and a novel. May I send you Tomahawk for your consideration?” The answer was, “Yeah.” I did send the script but never heard from Mr. Butler. Now this could be for many reasons because action scripts have their own genre, and Tomahawk had some martial art sequences per Nasso’s request to add fighting scenes. It could be the age of the actor or other factors, etc.
At this point, I decided to play a critic’s role and analyse “Den of Thieves” as a comparison to “Tomahawk.” I found it mind-boggling how the Hollywood elite does not have to follow the standards of film-making. Here are some headlines and reviews from professionals about the movie:
- A heist thriller, but it's a relatively elaborate one, an underworld action drama that sprawls and digresses and for a while, at least, appears to have something on its mind. Owen Gleiberman, Variety.
- In this long, dull, repetitive heist movie, the thieves are somewhat likable, and the good guys are largely repulsive. Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media.
-An officer is obsessed with the leader of a group of Marines turned bank robbers in this action flick that is set in Los Angeles. Ben Kenigsberg, The NYTime.
-Slick and solid in moments, Den Of Thieves disappoints with its reliance on easy plotting and gruff, overcooked acting. One for Butler completists only. James White, Empire.
My review is based on my film writing experience for more than 20 years. Reading these reviews, I happen to agree with all of them. Each review has a different perspective. One review focuses on the plot, one on the main character and others on the quality of the material, mainly the script, which is our focal point here. All reviews seem to knock down the caliber of the movie, but the second one specifically grabs my attention. I happen to totally agree with Jeffery M. Anderson, “In this long, dull, repetitive heist movie, the thieves are somewhat likable, and the good guys are largely repulsive.” The movie is long, repetitive and the thieves, mainly Merriman, whom I found as more of a rational character, serves its purpose more than Butler’s neurotic character, Nick O’Brien.
First, let’s start with the title, “Den of Thieves.” After watching the movie, you’d wonder if this title is about the bad guys or about the cops. In one of Butler’s dialogue, he says, “You see you’re not the bad guys here, we are.” So, to title a movie after the antagonist is kind of weird, the title is definitely captivating, but it doesn’t reflect the scheme, where the title should be a mirror to the plot or the protagonist.
When I first submitted my script, “Tomahawk” for coverage, the first thing the reader wrote was, “you need to cut down the number of your characters.” The script had about nine essential characters, and I had to cut them down to seven. It was a tough rewrite, but the script read much better once completed. In Den of Thieves, between the LA police officers, Merriman’s gang and the FBI, there were at least fifteen necessary characters, which I thought were too many. Also, a few of the characters were introduced with their names on the screen, such as “Donnie,” which makes you feel like you are watching a Sci-fi movie. The characters need to be introduced seamlessly as the story unfolds, so the audience can relate and sympathize with them.
Den of Thieves opens with a shooting scene of an attack on an armored car in a donut shop parking lot at dawn. The armored car had no cash. Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler) shows up at the scene with a bunch of detectives, then the FBI, who started redundant childish bickering with O’Brien.
At one of my special screenwriting classes, my question to the instructor was, “Does the hero tell the story or does the plot follow the main character?” And the answer was that the main character is the story. The flaws, skills, passion and background of the main character develop the storyline. In “Den of Thieves,” Nick was not creating nor developing the story, he was reacting to the plot dominated by the bad guys led by Merriman. In the movie “Die Hard,” John McClane, (Bruce Willis) was visiting his wife, who’s separated from him, and she was taken as a hostage by Hans Gruber, (Alan Rickman) in a Los Angeles high rise building. McClane was not there to engage in police business, he had no jurisdiction as a cop from New York. If John McClane was a mechanic from New York, he would have surrendered to the kidnappers, but the fact that he’s a cop produces the story and creates the obstacle for the bad guys.
In Den of Thieves, O’Brien, a drunken, chain-smoking LA detective, full of confusion and attitude, isn’t afraid to bend the rules. He tells one suspect that he’d rather shoot him than book him: “Less paperwork.” So O’Brien’s character was not interesting or well developed and did not bring anything exciting to the plot other than being a lunatic cop fighting crime perpetrated by professionals. Yes, he did uncover the fictitious heist, but that was not enough to carry on a two-hour storyline.
Looking at the plot, it seems to me that the makers of this movie were more concerned about a sequel than the movie itself. A sequel should be the results of a quality product, but here we can see that everything in the making insinuates a sequel, especially Donnie’s character, which I found to be very odd, childish, poorly-developed and totally inconsistent, whereas Merriman’s character was very consistent, more professional and, to some extent, likeable, especially when he told the sick acting O’Brien at the sushi place, “We are a family here.”
Let’s focus on Donnie’s character. First of all, he worked at a bar, then he was approached by Merriman’s guy as they prepared for the heist and were looking for someone who “can drive.” But in one of the scenes, Merriman says to Donnie, “My men, my way,” which suggests that the idea of the federal reserve heist was Donnie’s, which is not compatible with the narrative that Merriman was looking for a driver and was referred to Donnie. And the fact that it was Donnie’s idea and that Donnie makes it safely with the cash at the end of the movie, strongly suggests the notion of a sequel, which damages the movie even further.
Here is a list of things that should and should not have happened in the movie, for the movie could have been rewritten in a more striking way:
Some of the annoying things in the movie were the three awkward meetings between Merriman and O’Brien. The three scenes were not necessary; one would have been more than enough; repeating the same scene does not build drama, it bores the story and makes it less interesting.
1: It was clear from the beginning that O’Brien was unfaithful to his wife, and finally, she was fed-up and wanted a divorce. This subplot was not utilized well into the dramatic structure, and it was attached to the narrative as a side story with no influence on the main plot. Maybe the writer could have used this piece of drama and O’Brien’s character flaws to improve the film. What if, after the divorce, O’Brien shows up at the sushi bar and sees his wife with Merriman, OMG! Now this would have been a much better set up and a drive for O’Brien to act the way he was acting, which was only motivated by being an “ass.” With this fashion, O’Brien has a personal reason or personal eagerness and an inner struggle to go after Merriman. And this one meeting could have been enough instead of the three boring speechless meetings.
2: The fact that Merriman uses one of his stripper friends, i.e., “nudity,” to pass information to O’Brien about the decoy bank heist doesn't make sense and is not played convincingly. O’Brien had already pulled in Donnie, threatened him and recruited him. And Merriman knew very well about Donnie’s ordeal with O’Brien, so he could have used Donnie to pass on the information, which would have made more sense. For O’Brien to be picked up at a bar by a stripper and taken to her apartment where Merriman shows up made no sense whatsoever.
3: The scene where the daughter of one of Merriman’s guys was getting ready to go out on a date, and her date was intimated by the crammed crew inside the garage. This scene may be a little funny, but it’s a big chunk of fat attached to the movie with no relation to the story whatsoever. This scene is a big distraction to the stream of the plot and the sequences that should smoothly flow.
4: In the end, we realize that Donnie was the mastermind of the whole plan and robbery, but this notion has no cohesiveness with the rest of the story because we saw earlier that Merriman was testing Donnie’s driving skills, and later, we saw him telling Donnie, “My way, my men.”
Donnie applied at a Chinese food restaurant after earning Merriman’s confidence, and his first order was to be delivered to the Federal Reserve employee, which gives Donnie access to the facility. This also doesn’t hold any water. It would have been a more convincing circumstance if Donnie was already working at the Chinese restaurant during the day and maybe at the bar at night, and this is where he was familiar to the guards and had easy access to the federal reserve building and gets the idea of robbing the bank. And this would explain the crucial information that Merriman knew about the inner working of the Federal Reserve.
5: The climax of the movie. For a genius robber to end up in a Los Angeles traffic jam and get killed is not consistent with the build-up of the entire narrative and very incompatible with Merriman's character as a former Marine and a professional bank robber. The pay-off was not enough to satisfy the drive of the main character, “Hero,” nor the eagerness of the viewers to experience a dramatic closure of the movie.
The producer of Den of Thieves could have taken the movie into a different dimension by focusing on the script and not the technicalities. It was reported that the makers worked with a technical advisor and hired an L.A. robbery expert to make the movie authentic. Again, spending time and effort with a writer would have been more beneficial to the film and spending less time planning for a sequel would have also elevated the film and jacked it up at least 2 more stars.
I am not a film critic, but as an aspiring film writer, I find the belated thoughts would have been essential to the success of the movie and sticking to the professional standards of film writing may have positively impacted the reviews and, by all odds, motivated moviegoers.
In “Tomahawk,” after the first coverage, the reader wrote, “Ever since Bruce Willis stormed the skyscraper in Die Hard, studios have been on the prowl for the next action caper with the lone wolf hero bringing down the bad guys. It’s clear from this draft that the writer understands the rhythm of an action story, you’d be amazed at how many writers actually can’t grasp that concept.” Hollywood lit Sale.