The art to a good heist movie is usually in revealing just the right amount of the heist itself, leaving the plan partially obfuscated and keeping audiences guessing how the crew will pull it off in the end. The other big factor, as any Ocean's 11 fan will tell you, is having a likable cast of characters the audience will root for, even as they break the law and maybe even endanger or harm innocent bystanders in the process.
Using those two criteria, Den of Thieves is only half successful. The heist itself--masterminded by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), Donnie (O'Shea Jackon Jr.), Levi (50 Cent), and Bosco (Evan Jones)--is popcorn-munching fun, as the crew orchestrates a complex and inventive infiltration of the Los Angeles Federal Reserve. These characters themselves, however, as well as Gerard Butler's gruff and dirty cop "Big Nick" Flanagan, are mostly anything but likable, despite some small attempts on the movie's part to humanize them.
Den of Thieves is bookended by two seat-gripping action scenes, the first opening the movie cold in a donut shop parking lot as Merrimen's crew hijacks an armored car. The rest of the movie is mostly spent simply observing as the characters plan the heist and Big Nick tracks their various moves. It culminates with a high-powered street level shootout that will make you sweat if you've ever daydreamed this exact nightmare while stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the way home from work.
That's a quirk of living in Los Angeles, a setting Den of Thieves eagerly informs us is the bank robbery capital of the world (which maybe isn't true anymore, but whatever). The city certainly comes through as a character, though this isn't the cheesy version of LA we're used to seeing on the big screen--more like the parts you drive through on your way home from the airport. It's both refreshing and slightly depressing to see this side of LA onscreen.
The crew themselves all come from a military background, and the actors clearly put in some hard work training for the action scenes. It paid off; the shootouts are the most engrossing parts of the movie, and the physicality exhibited by Butler, Schreiber, and 50 Cent does a lot to make these scenes believable.
Den of Thieves' main problem will rear its head if you're hoping to identify or sympathize with any of the protagonists, on either side of the conflict. They're miserable saps, one and all, gruff and coarse and selfish as can be. Butler's character, in particular, is just a real piece of work, a drunk who cheats on his wife and kidnaps and abuses suspects without a moment's hesitation.
By the end you won't much care whether any of them make it through alive, especially when Schreiber's character sets up a massive SAW machine gun on the hood of his truck and starts chewing through gridlocked cars by the dozen. It's established earlier that these "elite" bank robbers only shoot "uniforms," not innocents, but that apparently goes out the window once they're cornered; the bystander body count in the scene must be astronomical, although the movie gets too squeamish in the end to show any of that collateral carnage.
Of course, every heist movie doesn't need to be helmed by dashing George Clooneys and charming Channing Tatums. Den of Thieves comes off feeling more realistic and less like a magic show than some of its contemporaries as a result. It's a depressing reality in which to exist. But as Butler and the movie's director and writer, Christian Gudegast, asserted during a recent press conference, you have to be half bad guy yourself to take down criminals at this level (the LA Sheriff's department's Major Crimes division). That's the idea, really: that the guys on both sides of this conflict aren't so different.
O'Shea Jackson Jr.'s Donnie is the one exception, besides the movie's scant female characters, who include the protagonists' wives, daughters, and prostitutes, plus victims of their crimes. Jackson plays a slightly more hapless member of the crew, outed early on by Big Nick and caught in the middle between both sides. He's instrumental to the heist, but he also gets slapped around quite a bit, and Ice Cube's son proves once again he has impressive acting skills, despite this only being his third movie ever (after playing his dad in Straight Outta Compton and Aubrey Plaza's landlord in Ingrid Goes West).
Den of Thieves is ultimately a gritty, realistic, engrossing LA heist movie with a couple of glaring flaws that will make it a little too difficult to stomach for some viewers. If watching super beefed up Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber go toe-to-toe in an ever-escalating gun-measuring contest of balls and wits is your ideal moviegoing experience, though, you'll likely find little to dislike.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Heist is complex and exciting||Few likable characters|
|Action scenes feel grounded and realistic||Climactic scene of gun violence lacks realistic consequences|
|Great performances from Schreiber, Butler, and rest of the cast|
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