Den of Thieves is just my kind of trash. The directorial debut of London has Fallen writer Christian Gudegast, the sprawling heist film plays like a bargain bin version of Michael Mann’s 1995 classic Heat. Only more macho. Which is impressive, given Heat is already jacked up on testosterone and fragile male egos.
After witnessing Gerard Butler chew his way through London, however, it should come as no surprise that Den of Thieves mainlines roid-addled manliness until it looks like the leading man’s eyes are going to bulge out of their sockets or spill tears down his cheeks. Maybe both. There’s so much intense bro staring and even though they say other words, the dialogue more or less all boils down to two dudes glaring at each other snapping and head nodding, Yeah, yeah, yeah, or come on, come on, come on, back and forth. It watches like a grown up version of an adolescent playground standoff, and I’m 100% here for every last second.
Den of Thieves tells the tale of a crew trying to pull off an impossible heist by weaving two narrative threads: from the point of view of both the cops and the crooks. Former Marine Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber, The Wire) leads the criminal cadre that includes fellow Corps buddies Levi (50 Cent) and Bosco (Evan Jones, Cheddar Bob from 8 Mile), and new guy Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ingrid Goes West). On the other side are the Regulators, a group of play-by-their-own-rules Los Angeles Sheriffs led by Butler’s Nick Flanagan, the only one worth mentioning. But get this, the cops are messed up like just like the bad guys. Gudegast’s script takes great pains to make sure you know this. They drink and smoke and cheat on their wives and are just as likely to shoot an outlaw as arrest one.
What transpires plays out largely as expected in a cops-and-robbers movie like this. It’s down and dirty and to the point. We watch the criminals plan to rob the Federal Reserve, reminding us every step of the way that it’s impossible and that it’s never been done. We also watch the cops watch them, and they in turn watch the cops. And so on and so forth in a round-about way that’s intended to be clever and witty but at this stage has been done many times, and much better.
Perhaps Den of Thieves’ greatest accomplishment is that at 140-minutes (yes, it’s 140-minutes-long), and overflowing with totally unnecessary asides, the pace never drags and it’s never dull. The script kicks off by throwing various narrative tricks at the viewer. Early on we get flashbacks, and when the cops Shanghai Donnie, Gudegast leans on the watching-things-happen-as-a-character-explains-them shtick. For a second, it veers towards Ocean’s-style heist territory, but thinks better of it. After trying to wow us with plot gymnastics, the story settles into a more straightforward style, bouncing back and forth between the two POVs, which is overblown enough without any additional flourishes.
In an attempt to humanize Flanagan, there’s a looping thread about his train wreck of a home-life. To call it extraneous gives it too much credit; it’s generic cop-movie melodrama. But it’s so ridiculous and over-the-top that it’s comical. When he interrupts his estranged wife on a date, he may as well just be shuffling around, knuckles dragging on the ground, thumping his chest like a gorilla. It’s has no place in the movie and adds nothing, and in most cases would simply waste time, but it’s also comic gold. And in the middle of all of this already convoluted nonsense, 50 Cent gets a random, isolated family moment where all his thugged-out boys show up to intimidate his daughter’s prom date. You know, just for kicks.
Gudegast doesn’t ask the cast to do much. More than acting, the majority of what they do on screen consists of clench-jawed glares with a side of intense eye contact, bulging muscles, and throbbing forehead veins. That’s the problem when the core members of your cast are designated a stoic, tight-lipped former military operators, there’s not a lot character work beyond stern scowling.
Gerard Butler, however, has a damn fine time playing a raging scumfuck. Perpetually coming off a three-day bender, he’s wild-eyed and chaotic, coked to the gills and ready to get rowdy. But he’s not above doing a silly voice for his youngest daughter when he drops by her school unannounced, smelling like the hooker he just banged. Shit is absurd, I tell you what.
Though marketed as a high-octane actioner, Den of Thieves falls more into the category of a gritty, street-level crime drama. That isn’t to say there aren’t action scenes, as they punctuate the film, but it’s not non-stop gunfights, and the script favors bland tension over fireworks. There’s really only two of note, the very first scene—of course this movie opens with a robbery, it’s about bank robbers after all—and the climactic running street battle that, again, evokes a low-rent version of Heat.
But the action, when it erupts, is solid. Think DTV style grittiness, though on a somewhat larger scale—they obviously had more money to play with than most of the modern comparison points—and you have an idea. On both sides, there’s a tactical, gun fetish element—you can practically see the Blu-ray bonus feature of these dudes going through boot camp-style training—that lends them a grounded air of authenticity. And for the most part, Gudegast and cinematographer Terry Stacey (50/50) handle themselves. With sound choreography, occasional stylistic flairs and expanded scope place it a touch above bare bones, workmanlike status.
Not quite the adrenaline-fueled rager the trailers make it out to be, my initial assessment of Den of Thieves as Shitty Heat remains accurate. That’s precisely what it delivers. And I mean that in the best possible way. It’s like STX gave Christian Gudegast a pile of cash, sat back, and said, “Do what you like.”
Despite being overlong and full of unnecessary distractions, it never bloats or drags. Somehow it still feels stripped down. It’s always compelling to witness, even when it’s unintentionally hilarious. Or especially when it’s unintentionally hilarious. Wall-to-wall macho posturing, I will certainly stop and watch Den of Thieves again when I stumble upon this on cable, and I might even purposely pop it on if I come across it while aimlessly scrolling through Netflix. [Grade: B (though probably a C+ for most audiences)]