Synopsis – A gritty crime saga which follows the lives of an elite unit of the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. and the state’s most successful bank robbery crew as the outlaws plan a seemingly impossible heist on the Federal Reserve Bank.
My Take – No offense to their fans, but no one in the right sense would expect a 140-minute-long film led by Gerard Butler and Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson to be a cinematic masterpiece, well if you do, you’ll be obviously disappointed, as this is a testosterone-fueled action film with both the good guys & bad guys trying to outdo each other in how tough they are, how clever they can be, and how many one-liners they can deliver, a lot of early 1980’s action films, the primary goal of this Christian Gudegast directed film is to just be entertaining and with that target it delivers. As a huge fan of heist based films and of course director Michael Mann‘s 1995 cinematic wonder ‘Heat’, I am pleased to say that this film surprisingly delivers some unexpected turns and manages to bring some new elements into the genre that I did not expect. Sure, the film does not match up to the standard of the well-made Heat and does contain some bad-cop clichés, but considering it’s hopelessly generic title, the film manages to be completely entertaining and fun ride through some surprisingly complex characters and an unexpectedly intricate game of cat and mouse. Set in the grittiest corners of Los Angeles, the story follows two groups of men from opposite sides of the law. On one side is Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler), a boozy, chain-smoking cop who leads a highly-trained unit (Maurice Compte, Brian Van Holt, Kaiwi Lyman and Mo McRae) in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and on the other side is a skilled bank robbery crew led by Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), a former marine, on who O’Brien is hot on trial to catch. Having pulled off a bunch of major bank heists in the city, Merrimen’s team of ex-military members which includes Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and Bosco (Evan Jones), despite going off the rails a few times, always seem to be one step ahead, due to Merrimen’s authoritative and calculative moves.
However, when O’Brien and his team pull in Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a low-level member of Merriman’s gang who drives the getaway car, O’Brien is confident that Donnie could be his informant, who can help in taking down Merrimen’s team, all before they carry out a daring heist at the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve. Regularly cutting back and forth between the criminals and their future plans, and the cops trying to figure out who the criminals are and, once they do, how to catch them in action, it’s soon seen that both sides are made up of very smart, if dissimilar men. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the basic plot of Heat, from which this film is severely inspired from, yet put together quite well by first-time director Christian Gudegast (scriptwriter for London Has Fallen) who along with his B-film film-making skill and efficiency, which also containing some nice cine-literate references (Casablanca, Bad Lieutenant) and touches of ingenuity among all its rehashing, as director/writer Christian Gudegast throws the curve ball by setting the film up with gritty dark characters, an intense gun shoot out, and suspense with having this heist play out until the final moments. As the film banks on the classic western theme of the law vs. the lawless, it’s derivative and drowning in stagnant machismo, but stark enough to work. There are points in the film that you can’t help but hope the bad guys will get away with the loot. Its best scenes are tough-guy duels of opposing wills, shooting reflexes, and marksmanship: an ingenious wordless confrontation between Big Nick and Merrimen at a gun range; the inevitable climactic shoot-out on a traffic-jammed highway on-ramp. In short order, a small but complex bank robbery — accompanied by sweaty close ups, fast cutting, and droning music — sets the actual plot in motion, as it all evolves into an intricate heist and an example of intricate storytelling. Yeah, it’s long, but it really doesn’t feel that way, as the pace of the film is stellar, and director Gudegast doesn’t give the audience a chance to get comfortable. Upfront without any delay, as in the opening shot itself he stages a violent, night-time attack on an armored car as if he were imitating the tension from Black Hawk Down. The villains mow down the off-duty guards, steal their armored car, and then stash it safely out of sight. The heist film genre is often times full of overdone clichés and unconvincing suspense but for some reason this film was able to put a fresh twist on everything you see. Though most of it moves along at a tension-filled but somewhat leisurely pace, it leads to a grueling, explosive finish that neatly ties into the atmosphere of the film’s opening salvo of violence. Though the film is populated by very sharp, smart people, one of the characters is definitely smarter and sharper than the rest. The script effectively makes you wait till the final minutes to figure out who is the true winner. The three heists in the film are all awesome. Like I said earlier, they all are really tense and leave you feeling like you don’t know how they’ll turn out. Importantly, they’re smart. The characters’ actions make logical sense and there’s nothing incredibly unbelievable about what they do. It perfectly straddles the line of suspending disbelief. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously.
It doesn’t try to have a message or get really dark with crazy violence or horrible back-stories. It also doesn’t go too far the other way and try to be really funny or have a comedic relief character. It stays in its lane as a solid heist film; no more, no less. However, one scene that really deserves a mention is the one with the thieves, Enson Levoux, is at home as his daughter’s prom date arrives. He takes the man into the garage where Levoux’s muscle-bound friends are waiting. Levoux tells the man that, “for the past 16 years, my daughter’s safety and protection has been my responsibility and my responsibility only. For the first time in her life, I have got to hand you that responsibility. Don’t mess up or your mama will have to wheel you around for the rest of your life.” I think that showing this personal side is extremely valuable to rounding out the story. As you might have guessed, the action scenes are also tightly filmed and feature some nice shots. The gunfire booms and illuminates the screen and they stick you right in the middle of some tense scenes. They also film those scenes well as you get some good angles in the car chases and the choreography with some of the gunfights was surprisingly solid. While the story meanders at points, you never have any problem when Merriman and his crew are engaged by the police and are trading fire in a shootout. The pitfalls of the film really come down to just a couple of things, starting with the character developments being quite is uneven. With an uninteresting sub plot, Nick gets most of the screen time instead of better characters like Ray and Donnie. This could have helped us like some of them a little better as they all are jerks as characters. The second is that the film does drag with its long run time. I would say it’s at least 15 minutes too long and while they needed some things like red herrings to setup the twist at the end, shortening those scenes might have helped the plot flow better. Coming to the performances, considering their underdeveloped characters, the actors do a good job. Led by Gerard Butler is fantastically raw and profoundly reckless. This is a step up from Geostorm for Butler and his charisma and screen presence are better utilized here. While, Pablo Schreiber, who is a few decent films away from being given a proper shot at a career defining role, plays his part effortlessly. I think he’s got a lot of talent and while he’s good here, this isn’t that breakout role that he needs to become a leading man. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson still isn’t much of an actor, but the film wisely cuts down on his dialogue and uses him more as a physical presence. But the best decision the director made was to cast O’Shea Jackson Jr. in his film. After memorably bursting onto the scene playing his father, Ice Cube, in Straight Outta Compton, Jackson Jr. followed that up with a wonderful scene-stealing turn in last year’s black comedy Ingrid Goes West’ The guy’s clearly a star, and it’s to director Gudegas‘s credit that at least he knows it, giving Donnie the film’s most compelling arc. In supporting roles, Maurice Compte, Brian Van Holt, Kaiwi Lyman, Evan Jones, Dawn Olivieri, Meadow Williams, and Mo McRae are alright. On the whole, ‘Den of Thieves’ is a predictable yet fun and exciting action-packed thriller with great cinematography and decent acting.
Directed – Christian Gudegast
Rated – R
Run Time – 140 minutes