Den of Thieves revolves around both sides of the law: the Major Crimes unit of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department led by Big Nick (Gerard Butler) and a team of highly-trained bank robbers including Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Levoux (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and Bosco (Evan Jones), who are planning a seemingly impossible heist to rob the Federal Reserve Bank.
Two words: Michael Mann. And more specifically, Heat in which the highly-influential 1995 cops-and-robbers crime drama and Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves shared a lot of things in common. From the staging of action (more on that later) to the slice-of-life revolving around both sides of the law, Den of Thieves is like a modern remake of Heat. But unlike the more star-studded Heat with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro leading the roles, we got Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber of TV’s The Wire and American Gods instead.
Butler’s overall performance and his typically roguish charm made quite an impression playing a troubled cop with personal family issues. Schreiber does look the part as the no-nonsense leader of the bank-robber team but Gudegast, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Paul Scheuring of TV’s Prison Break fame, fails to give him enough room for character development. In fact, just about every antagonist who played the bank robbers is either one-dimensional or reduced into background characters. Even Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who is given a brief subplot as a caring family man, barely registers at all. It’s just sad that his acting is disappointingly wooden. The only antagonist that is least worthwhile here is O’Shea Jackson Jr., best known for his breakthrough role in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton.
Clocking at 140 minutes long, Den of Thieves wants to be a sprawling crime saga. And yet, the story feels like a routine genre movie that we have seen countless times before. Gudegast and Scheuring clearly have nothing new or particularly interesting to say about the gritty life of cops and robbers. If that’s not enough, the story even tries to emulate The Usual Suspects at one point with a big twist in the end. Problem is, the so-called twist feels like an unnecessary last-minute addition that should have been trimmed off altogether.
As a first-time director, Gudegast is no Michael Mann or even David Ayer, another filmmaker notable for his Los Angeles crime dramas such as Harsh Times (2005) and End of Watch (2012). Still, there is one thing I like about Gudegast’s direction: the action sequences. The opening nighttime armoured-truck heist scene and especially the climactic daylight shootout finale are all crisply staged with great verve and clarity. Like Heat, Gudegast doesn’t rely on dramatic music to enhance the action sequences. Instead, once the shooting starts, the music stops to make way for the deafening sound of the gunshots. If only the rest of the movie is as good as the action sequences here, Den of Thieves could have been this year’s Heat.