You’re out having a few drinks with your friend, Christian. Christian is excitedly telling you about a bunch of movies he saw recently. You recognize some of the titles. Heat. Triple 9. Ocean’s 11. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Training Day. The Usual Suspects. Bad Boys II. It’s a lot, though he keeps swinging back to Heat. You get the impression he was watching it while also playing Call of Duty so some of the salient points are missing, but he seems to have gotten the gist. You nod along and sip your scotch. Christian sighs and leans back.
“The only problem,” He says. “Is that they’re not all one movie.”
“That is disappointing, Christian.” You say. “Too bad there’s no way to make that happen.”
You see a dangerous glimmer in Christian’s eye.
“Never say never. Listen, I have a plan. I’m going to need a couple million dollars, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson…and get me Gerard Butler on the phone.”
Den of Thieves, Christian Gudegast’s directorial debut, is a capable-but-maniacal film utterly beholden to it’s influences. It wear’s these influences starkly on its sleeve, checking them off as it goes along. All of those films mentioned above get at least an homage or at most outright the outright restaging of key moments from famous crime dramas, from an Oceans-style heist to a Heat-style bad guy/good guy meeting in a neutral location. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how The Usual Suspects ends up tying into it.
The plot is your usual heist-film fare: there’s a team of elite criminals who keep upping their sights on more money and higher stakes, and there’s a team of almost-as-bad cops who want to catch or kill them. Cops and Robbers as a genre is so well worn that it’s far more defined by the details of the work than the plot or function of the characters. It’s the execution, style, and performances that separate a movie like Heat from future TNT fare like Triple 9. So what happens when a movie tries to put all of those elements into a blender, the good and the bad? It creates a hodgepodge of an experience. It’s still filling, but it’s also dissonant.
Veteran scene-chewer Gerard Butler delivers the first truly great pulpy performance of 2018 as “Big Nick” Flanagan, a no-bullshit Major Crimes LA County Sheriff who eats bloody donuts off the ground of crime scenes and wanders into people’s homes at an alarming rate. The opposition is lead by Pablo Schreiber and a bevy of old pals from his Marine and football days. Caught between the two groups is the newest member of the gang, Donnie, played by the consistently impressive O’Shea Jackson Jr. — simultaneously being beaten and sweated by Butler and his hyper-masculine crew of sheriffs while also being tested and threatened by his fellow criminals, Donnie becomes the character at the center of the drama.
Any other film with this premise might be described as a cat and mouse game, but since Flanagan’s idea of reconnaissance on suspects is loudly accosting them at hibachi restaurants and having sex with their wives, that doesn’t exactly apply. “We’re the bad guys.” He intones to Donnie early in the film. Well, they certainly have less manners than the criminals, anyway.
Heist movies live on their thrills and efficiency, so you might be wondering where Den of Thieves pads out it’s two hour and twenty minute run time. The movie decides to introduce us to the home lives of it’s main characters. We see how Nick’s infidelity and general unpleasantness ruin his home life, but how Schreiber’s Merriman and 50 Cent’s Levi have stable and happy lives, despite their criminal ambitions. If Den of Thieves wasn’t trying to be half a dozen movies at once, it might be trying to say something with these character moments. Something to appreciate is that the film never wastes any time giving us arduous back stories to why our characters do what they do. The criminals want money. The cops want to stop them. Most of the best crime dramas live in this zone and know that complicating things with fuss about a desire to do good in the world or to get revenge or what-have-you is all so much window dressing.
As it stands, the most outright fascinating thing about the movie is how it’s ultimately about a young black man cleverly and nonviolently pulling one over on two grumpy, older white dudes who just want to shoot each other. It’s hard to say how aware the film is of this point, as important as it feels. The movie only ever really approaches self-reflection in a scene where tough-guy Nick is served divorce papers in front of his team and suddenly this group of tough-as-nails killer sheriffs look meekly around like kittens and say in chorus “that sucks, bro”, more frightened of talking about feelings than they are the barrel of a villain’s gun. Den of Thieves is far more enamored with the bubbling violence between Butler and Schreiber, it’s tacti-cool set dressing, and the impressive but borderline pornographic military training on display. The action and gun work, it should be said, is all rather slick and well executed.
Den of Thieves is somewhat enjoyable thanks to the bananas performance from Gerard Butler (“I’d fuck you.”) and because the films that it’s pulling from are themselves so enjoyable. Even as confused as it is (there are some downright haphazard editing choices that seem to have been made in an attempt to streamline the movie and work around reshoots) it’s satisfying, in it’s way. But it’s a far steeper climb to live up to those movies and be something worth appreciating on it’s own, and in that Den of Thieves falls short.