Many viewers of Den of Thieves will walk out of the theater and ask themselves the same question: “Why did they make this movie when Heat already exists?” Films can be enlivened and enriched by their connections to past works, but the unique elements need to be of a similar quality. Den of Thieves never rises to the level of the best crime and heist films — your Heats or Rififis. If the name wasn’t already taken, they could have called this one Medium Cool.
The film opens with some clumsy text alerting the audience to the number of bank robberies that occur in Los Angeles on a daily basis. It’s a staggering amount, despite the overly-serious presentation. At the same time, a robbery is taking place, much in the style of Heat’s introductory heist. A gang of masked, militarized men rob an armored truck, and in the process a trigger-happy member guns down the guards. The fact that the truck is empty is presented as something that should interest the audience, but the value of an empty armored truck isn’t lost on viewers.
Pablo Schreiber, desperately looking for a role to shoot him onto the A-list, plays Merrimen, the singularly named leader of the group. (The film never does anything with his name’s terrible Robin Hood allusion.) Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is his mushmouth second-in-command, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays Donnie the driver, the newest member of the crew. It’s apparent from their introductions that Den of Thieves has an inability to trust its screenplay or the audience. The characters are given title cards with their names, which suggests a level of importance out of step with the film. The names of the characters are revealed in the dialogue through fairly standard means, but there’s no reason for the self-important titles. It’s not clear if they’re a device of writer/director Christian Gudegast, or were merely added later, but they don’t augur well for the sophistication of the film.
The opposing team of police officers are led by Nick “Big Nick” Flanagan (Gerard Butler, in a particularly doughy phase of his career). Butler, barely concealing his Scottish accent, belongs to the Guy Fieri School of Law Enforcement. Admittedly, he’s missing the highlights, but his supply of leather jackets and trashy shirts more than makes up for it. You can almost smell his aroma, some unholy mixture of spearmint chewing gum, cigarettes, leather, and an overpowering cologne.
Big Nick and his colleagues are extrajudicial terrorists of sorts, operating outside of the law whenever its confines inconvenience them. There’s a particularly tone-deaf moment when Nick is trying to scare information out of an unwilling informant, and resorts to putting him in a chokehold when he doesn’t get what he’s searching for. It’s possible to make some kind of meaningful sociopolitical statement by having a white police officer strangle a black man, but the similarities to the death of Eric Garner seem designed only to increase the drama of the scene, rather than to make a cogent point.
Still, Den of Thieves shows some ambition when it comes to staging the robberies and action scenes. Gudegast, making his debut as a director, crafts assured sequences when the guns are out. But great heist movies have to work just as well in their quieter moments, precisely when Den of Thieves falters. Heist films belong to the category of Thrillers of Expertise (so named by me); what most interests audiences about them aren’t the pyrotechnics, but the displays of wit and skill that help the thieves and cops succeed in their respective positions. Michael Mann understood this, which is why he went into such minute detail when James Caan breaks into a safe in Thief (1981). Jules Dassin understood it, which is why he spent a full half hour on his big robbery scene in Rififi (1955), and even cut out the music because the visuals were dramatic enough on their own. Gudegast does a passable job with the robbery scenes, but he devotes too much of his energy to the gun battle at the climax, a scene that strains credibility.
Beyond misdirecting his energy toward overwrought action scenes, Gudegast lazily introduces tangents he never fully explores. Merriman and his gang are mostly ex-marines, prompting Big Nick to question what turned him into a murdering bank robber. Perhaps something interesting could have been made of that, but the film never returns to the question during its interminable two-hour and twenty-minute runtime. The half-baked decisions are visible in the film’s visual language as well. Gudegast and cinematographer Terry Stacey shoot some of the robber sections in a harsh yellow light, contrasted with a chilly blue haze in the police scenes. It’s similar to the color scheme Steven Soderbergh employed in Traffic (2000), but its impact is dulled due to its selective employment. (The films also share ambient scores written by Cliff Martinez.)
The greatest sin for Den of Thieves is its utter lack of ambition. One wonders if the filmmakers pitched the movie as something like Heat, only not as good. The final minutes hint at the more clever movie that might have been, but as is they read more like a tacked on apology for the film’s aggressive mediocrity.