Who doesn’t love a good heist? Movies centering on crews of criminals (and the cops who chase said criminals) have wowed audiences for decades, and the responsibility now falls upon newer films of the breed to break new ground, to try new things. That’s not exactly the case with Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves. While the down-and-dirty Los Angeles-based thriller delivers surface-level excitement, it’s ultimately far too bloated and incoherent to make a lasting impression — or even make sense, for that matter.
We enter Los Angeles — bank robbery capital of the world, according to the film’s opening — during an armored car heist conducted by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Levi (50 Cent), and Bosco (Evan Jones). Things (mostly) go well for our crew of badass career criminals, but when they find themselves forced to kill a cop to make their getaway, they draw the attention of Los Angeles County Sheriff Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) and his unorthodox methods of getting the job done. Faced with more heat than they have ever encountered before, the team must outwit Flanagan while planning the ultimate job: ripping off the Federal Reserve building in Downtown Los Angeles, a feat that no one has ever pulled off.
Before focusing on the bulk of the negatives, it is worth mentioning that there is some solid action to bookend the movie. While Act 2 can turn into a bit of a slog, the moments in which the bullets start flying show where Christian Gudegast’s strengths lie as a filmmaker. In fact, taking the knowledge that it’s his first time behind the camera on a feature film into account, it’s really impressive to see what he pulled off in some of these action scenes. Everything is tactical, visceral, and stirring in a way that’s not entirely common in an era dominated by sanitized, PG-13 action thrillers.
Moreover, the same can also be said about the more suspenseful sequences involving the film’s central heist of the Federal Reserve. Christian Gudegast does a commendable job of milking the tension, and while most of these scenes aren’t particularly inventive concerning how they deliver the excitement, they do offer said excitement nonetheless. If nothing else, the film has that going for it.
However, even with those strengths, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Den of Thieves is mostly a poor man’s Heat. It doesn’t do much to move the dial forward on the heist genre in a meaningful way, and many of its sequences (even the well-executed ones) have been done better by other movies. There’s even an attempt to recreate the now-infamous diner faceoff from Michael Mann’s 1995 heist thriller (this time in a Japanese restaurant), but Den of Thieves‘ version of the sequence simply lacks any of nuance or subtle character moments that made this scene work over two decades ago. Instead, we’re left to watch Gerard Butler chew the scenery (at least he’s having a ball here) while everyone else exchanges tough guy glances.
Much of that stems from the overarching feeling that Den of Thieves doesn’t know precisely the type of movie that it wants to be all the way through its story. At times, the film feels like a grimy and mean cop drama in the vein of the better David Ayer films, while other sequences in the movie feel a bit more light-hearted and exciting in the style of The Italian Job or a Fast and Furious movie. The result? A series of narrative and tonal left turns throw the movie off-balance and keep the audience guessing as to the type of film that they’re supposed to be watching — and not in a good way.
These issues feel compounded by the fact that Den of Thieves is far longer than it has any right to be. Even with its solid first and third acts bookending its narrative, the middle portion of the movie (a.k.a most of the meat of the story) is incoherent and bordering on nonsensical. Entire subplots established early in the story ultimately have no bearing on the overall outcome of the movie, and the film ultimately seems to have a hard time balancing out its cast and giving us a reason to empathize with each member of the core ensemble. The cops are ostensibly framed as the good guys here, but we never get to spend much time with them to learn why we should care if they take down Merrimen’s crew.
This is especially true of Gerard Butler’s Nick Flanagan, who has to be one of the most bizarre bad cop characters committed to film in recent memory. Arrogant, impulsive, and self-destructive in his personal life (and yet uncannily talented as a police officer), Nick’s erratic behavior makes him impossible to track as a protagonist. At times, the film does attempt to hint at a more profound rationale for Nick’s oddly-foolhardy tendencies, but it ultimately never follows through to give him an arc that feels earned or satisfying.
In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that Den of Thieves would be made considerably better by dropping Nick and his cop buddies entirely to focus on Merrimen and his crew as the de facto heroes of the story. The film doesn’t do much to vilify them specifically, and in fact, it often goes out of its way to give them Robin Hood-esque arcs. That admittedly would make Den of Thieves a different movie, but it also would make it a decidedly better movie.
Den of Thieves is a 90-minute thriller stretched out over a punishing two hours and twenty minutes. Despite some cool action, it’s too stuffed and jumbled for its own good. It might please fans of the heist genre or Gerard Butler, but beyond that, there’s just not much here.