A group of bank robbers in LA plan the perfect heist whilst a small gang of ruthless cops plot their downfall. A couple of action sequences and some deeply uncomfortable dinners later we’re left to wonder who the real cops and robbers were here.
I was once told that it’s a little grating when critics mention lots of other movies in their reviews. This is unfortunate, as the sheer number of films that Den of Thieves calls to mind is staggering. Obvious points of comparison are: Hell or High Water, The Town, Baby Driver, Victoria, Rampart, Dog Day Afternoon, Inside Man, and probably most of all, Heat. Unfortunately the film fails to compare favourably to any of these films because it fails to bring anything new to the genre. Every one of the above mentioned films found exciting ways to make the conventional premise fresh and interesting. Den of Thieves merely plays as a selection of scenes you have already seen in better heist movies.
Perhaps something that Den of Thieves has that is unique is a real sense of discomfort. Scenes often last longer than you would expect, trapping you in the action. For example the trite and true scene in which a character’s wife walks out, with the kids in tow, runs much longer than you would expect. The sense of unease is therefore heightened as the threat of violence looms large over the domestic tension. This is especially effective during a very interesting sequence in which the cops abduct one of the bank robbers and stage a very confusing interrogation that effectively puzzled me into being fascinated.
The goal of the movie is to suggest that the line between cops and robbers isn’t black and white and that there’s good and bad on both sides, the primary concern of almost every heist movie since Rififi. There’s little more to be explored and unfortunately this movie doesn’t have the characters to be a character study. From the clichéd bad cop played by Gerard Butler, to the utter non-entities played by everyone else, it’s a thoroughly bland roster of characters. Because everyone is a very burly tough silent type, often the film would cut to one of them and I’d struggle to remember if they are a cop or a robber.
I forgive a certain amount of toxic masculinity in these films. If the Fast and Furious crew want to continue questioning each other’s hetero-credentials whilst awkwardly leering at the severely underused female cast, I’m disinclined to argue. If anything I blame myself for showing up. I do always hope though, whenever a movie’s cast has a combined neck width of a concrete bollard that maybe these jacked tough guys will just reach out and touch each other. Instead we’re treated to all the burley bank robbers intimidating a young man who’s about to take one of their daughters to prom, a scene that is played for laughs. This is the only scene in which we see this robber’s family.
When Gerard Butler’s character is handed divorce papers and looks genuinely devastated, the only friend we see him have in the movie comes over to him and says “Welcome to the fucking club” and walks away. Having said that, there is a fairly touching moment where a dying bank robber reaches out and bonds with the cop who shot him. I wish I knew who either of them were.
The MVP here is undoubtedly O’Shea Jackson Jr. Jackson has already proven himself capable of great character work playing his father in Straight Outta Compton and nuanced comedy in Ingrid Goes West. Here he is given a much more generic role, which makes it all the more impressive that he’s able to inject some real vulnerability and pathos. He could have been the central character if the director was not so fond of Butler’s tough guy, and the film would have benefited from that focus. I’m very fond of Jackson and hope he’ll be returning to less conventional fare soon.
Christian Gudegast may struggle to write a compelling script but he does excel at directing action and suspense. The actual heist that occupies most of the second half of the movie is often very engaging, especially the sequences inside the Federal Reserve. The action sequences have a lively flare and cohesion that nearly excuses the lack of actual interest in the characters caught up in them.
I’m going to continue to breach review etiquette by revealing that there is a twist at the end of this movie. This is a bad thing to do as it’s not obviously the kind of film that has a twist and, now revealed, any audience members still intending on seeing the film will be trying to guess it from the off. I mention it only as the twist very nearly redeems the film and justifies a number of problems it has, though it would have landed with much more impact had the focus of the film been shifted to the party involved. It’s a twist that is far more playful and interesting than this film merits.
Den of Thieves delivers effectively on most of the genre conventions you would expect and occasionally achieves the slick style of its forbears. But it isn’t nuanced, it isn’t subversive and it’s just not that interesting.
2 / 5