I freely admit to being a sucker for a good bank robbery / heist / ‘cops n robbers’ flick, having previously enjoyed titles like ‘Thief’ (1981), ‘Money Train’ (1995). ‘Heat’ (1995), ‘Armored’ (2009) and the Ocean’s trilogy (2001-2007), among others. So when I first caught wind of this newest addition to the genre, I was naturally intrigued. I will admit that when I saw the first trailer, I definitely got a whiff of ‘Heat’ off of it, which does stand to reason as that classic Michael Mann film is one of the ‘go to’ flicks in the crime genre…though I do think that it’s SLIGHTLY over-rated (blasphemy!!…I know). But from what I could see, ‘Den of Thieves’ was clearly checking off all the boxes for a gritty, stylish, Los Angeles-based crime drama…and I was OK with that. I was also OK with two key members of the cast, being Gerard Butler (‘300’) and Pablo Schreiber (‘American Gods’). I like both of those guys, especially Schreiber (who hails from a tiny lil town here in British Columbia), and I was curious to see what they would bring to this movie.
In the gritty underbelly of modern day Los Angeles, an early morning hit on an armored car quickly degenerates into a fierce gun battle that kills at least two uniformed cops before the highly organized thieves, led by a stoic ex-soldier named ‘Merrimen’ (Schreiber) vanish into the urban sprawl. Into the bloody aftermath enters a rough n tumble plainclothes cop named ‘Nick’ (Butler) and his own crew of macho, bad-ass sheriffs who are soon sniffing at ‘Merrimen’s trail, especially after they get their hands on ‘Donnie’ (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), the least experienced of the crew of robbers, and work to flip him. From there it becomes a tense ‘cat n mouse’ game as ‘Nick’ tries to track down the culprits, while they themselves work on piecing together their next major score.
I’d read a couple reviews before I sauntered down to our local Multiplex on a windy-as-hell Sunday afternoon, and what I read was fairly ‘middle-of-the-road’ and somewhat leaning toward the Negative, so my expectations were already fairly low. That being said, I had a pretty good time with ‘Den of Thieves’. Some of the criticisms I’d read, particularly those comparing it to ‘Heat’, were actually pretty accurate. It’s clear to me that that flick was definitely in the back of Christian Gudagest’s mind as he pieced together his first feature film, as many elements and story beats are undeniably similar. But…movies rip off other movies all the time, so as long as some effort was put into it, I’m OK if it’s not The Most Original Movie EVER…as long as I was entertained. And entertained I was!! For a first movie, Gudagest proves he’s got chops behind the camera, as I found this flick technically impressive. The cinematography had that long-zoom, wide-angle, slick n gritty documentary look that directors like Tony Scott or Walter Hill embraced and it’s a look I ALWAYS gravitate towards. I also always appreciate when a little extra work has been put into the sound design and this one did not disappoint. Whether it was the small incidentals like creaking leather or footsteps, or the few terrific-sounding gun battles that ensue, the sound design definitely worked for me, as did the groovy, ominous synth score.
The cast was pretty decent. I found Butler’s ‘Nick O’Brien’ character to be surprisingly unlikable but I suspect that was entirely by design and he chewed into the role with a certain relish. Schreiber’s ‘Merrimen’ was an interesting one, where it ALMOST seemed like they were going to give him a zen warrior under-tone, not unlike what Patrick Swayze did with the character of ‘Bodhi’ in the classic ‘Point Break’ (1991), but they didn’t. The potential was there, but they didn’t exploit it. Breaking it down, ‘Merrimen’ was a fairly one dimensional character, but the gravitas and charisma that Schreiber has been cultivating over the last couple years as an actor shone through and suggested there was more to the character than we got. 50 cent (who I generally loathe) was actually just fine as ‘Merrimen’s loyal second-in-command ‘Levi’, while the odd-looking Evan Jones (‘Jarhead’) rounded out the crew as ‘Bosco’. Ice Cube’s kid, O’Shea Jackson Jr., showed that he’s been paying attention to his old man’s time in Hollywood and has emerged showing that he can carry a role in a cinematic narrative. It’ll be interesting to see how he grows as an actor as time goes on. One thing I will say was that the overall portrayal of almost all the characters would’ve been right at home in a David Ayer flick. As I’ve noted before, Ayer (not unlike Michael Bay) loves macho manly men who sport bad-ass ink, swear like a muthafucka, and are quick with their fists and quicker with their trigger fingers. Virtually ALL the male characters in ‘Den of Thieves’ are cut from that cloth, both the cops and the robbers. Neck tattoos all around! The less said about the female characters, probably the better. If the dude characters are one-dimensional, the lady characters a merely place-holders and are almost exclusively hookers, strippers or bitchy wives. Admittedly, not a lot of sympathy or regard for the fairer sex in this one.
The action scenes were kick-ass, chaotic and loud, which is what I was hoping they’d be. The opening gun-fight set the tone and I loved the frantic pace of it, coupled with the thunderous roar and flash of automatic weapons fire. The same thing can be said of the prolonged chase / gun battle that breaks out and dominates the 3rd Act. Shattered glass, shell casings and blood everywhere! What also helped kick the ‘cool’ factor up a notch was the strangely effective suspense of the entire heist sequence leading into the carnage. I also appreciated that when main characters were eventually taken down, as they inevitably always are in movies like this, there was something unceremonious about it. No melo-dramatic slo-mo. No grandiose music score. A furious blast of gunfire, a burst of blood and a character hits the cement hard. No ‘final words’ bullshit. Just dead. That worked for me.
A couple of things didn’t work for me, however. Given that it’s the murder of cops and armored car guards that brings Butler’s character into the fray, it’s amusing how little regard that detail gets as the story plays out. We get mention of it at the initial heist scene, and then we get the robber who ‘popped off’ the gun fight feeling a little bummed out about it, but after ‘Merrimen’ informs his crew that they’re now ‘cop killers’…the movie never brings it up again! Just dropped. We also get a few scenes of ‘family life’ for both cops and thieves that felt really under-cooked and forced…and ultimately unnecessary in a movie that already runs over two hours long. Could’ve shaved the down (or out) and tightened up the pace a bit, which does drag a touch in the 2nd Act. There are also a couple scenes where characters just happen to turn up coincidentally in places where opposing characters just happen to be, with no explanation about how they were found or how they knew where they’d be. Felt a little sloppy. There’s also a twist ending that comes out of the blue that some other reviewers took issue with, but I think was mostly just fine. I thought the way that ‘Nick’ figures out it’s ‘Merrimen’ was just straight up lazy. It’s literally a case of ‘Well, he just got outta the joint, therefore it MUST be him’…and the chase is on. No other potential suspects are ever mentioned. I did actually roll my eyes at that one. A last nit-pick: There was way too many unnecessary location Title Cards used. Every scene change, we’re shown the name of yet another city in the LA area, on top of using a number of them for some of our main characters. Unnecessary.
All in all, I had a good time with ‘Den of Thieves’. I went in expecting very little, but I was ultimately entertained by about 90% of what I saw. The flick looks good, sounds good and is competently put together enough to get the most out of the paper-thin characters and overly-familiar tropes of the crime drama genre, in a script admittedly loaded with ‘been there, done that’ moments. There are some choppy narrative pieces that feel like some key scenes were removed when they shouldn’t have been and the twist at the end COULD irritate some people, in that it turns the movie from a ‘Heat’ clone into an ‘Ocean’s 11’ copy. If you like unapologetic action / crime dramas loaded with crass, macho posturing and liberal use of gunfire, then ‘Den of Thieves’ is a safe bet for you. It’s not a brilliant work of art, but it was a fun (and familiar) story to jump into on a slow Sunday afternoon. For the action scenes and the killer gun battles, I could suggest a Big Screen viewing, but if you just need a movie to shut your brain off to, for a couple hours one night on a streaming platform and with a big ass bowl of popcorn, you could do worse. A lot worse.