A notorious crew of bank robbers plan to pull off the ultimate heist - to steal $120million in cash from the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown LA… right under the noses of the state’s most feared police unit.
It’s the start of 2018 and we always need another heist movie in these cold winter months to get the blood flowing. It’s irrelevant that Den of Thieves feels like a Heat copycat, with the age-old ‘cop versus robber’ cat-and-mouse game at play, it has up-to-date effects and weaponry to enjoy. Ignore the fact that the gamble is on-screen tough guy Gerard Butler to bring home the goods, especially in what are notoriously ‘slow months’ for any release while the big awards season proceeds.
Even with its bloated twists and turns, and lost narrative (sadly) during the main heist, debut director Christian Gudegast’s final outcome still manages to entertain because the action is exhilarating enough to mask this, and it’s not all about Butler. In fact it sort of feels like an ensemble cast at play, which is a credit to the other actors billed, in particular Pablo ‘Pornstache’ Schreiber and Straight Outta Compton’s O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Butler plays ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien, an out-of-shape and bent veteran cop who has been hardened by many years at the LA County Sheriff’s Dept., steering his wayward crew. After a shoot-out (small war) outside a donut shop that leads to the theft of an armour cash vehicle, Big Nick crosses paths with one of the most successful bank robbery crews, headed up by ex-marine Merrimen (Schreiber). Big Nick and team press the designated driver, Donnie (Jackson Jr.), to tell them where the crew’s last big job will be: the seemingly impenetrable Federal Reserve Bank.
The film starts out rather impressively, complete with a bicep-pumped-action ride of bullet power that means business. We are in for grit and body count as the cop-killers set the pace. Gudegast grabs our attention. Cue ‘Big Nick’ Butler who resembles a less healthy version of Mel Gibson’s Riggs from Lethal Weapon, but with the same baby blues and chauvinism at work. Big Nick might seem like he’s about to pass out from exertion at times throughout, but the end catch keeps him going – even as his personal life crumbles miserably.
The real acting moments come from exchanges between Butler and Schreiber, with virtually little said, but everything meant in knowing looks, nods and fire-range standoffs. Schreiber makes a formidable and easy-on-the-eye opponent on screen as the guarded Merrimen, a role that seems to suit the Orange Is the New Black actor very well indeed. The world of heist movies is Schreiber’s oyster with a more skilled script in the future.
Jackson Jr. does well to keep the twists going, sweating at times under pressure as Donnie, but keeping tight lipped about the final end whammy. He does match his fellow actors’ screen presence, having far more to do and greater impact than 50 Cent does as gang member Levoux. However, the Queens rapper-cum-actor boasts one very funny scene that every parent of a prom-aged kid should note; 50 Cent’s only moment of glory.
The characters are not the problem here though, the error lies solely in the writing; note Gudegast was part of the team behind mediocre 2016 Butler offering, London Has Fallen. Both films suffer from implausible scenarios, with endings that are plain silly. This aside, the biggest sin in Den of Thieves that critically damages all the hard work – and gritty graft – is the gaping plot holes in the Federal Reserve Bank robbery. At least any Ocean’s film is diligent in making sure all questions regarding the planned heist are addressed. Accurate detail is paramount in these crime capers, especially when the run-time well exceeds the two-hour mark.
If you can excuse the above and take Den of Thieves as it comes for pure action and character titillation, it works. Just don’t dig deeper, or you’re in trouble. It’s a crying shame as Butler actually delivers one of his best performances to date. Big Nick makes quite the first and lasting impression.