A film review by Craig J. Koban February 13, 2018


2018, R, 140 mins.


Gerard Butler as Nick Flanagan  /  50 Cent as Levi Enson  /  Pablo Schreiber as Merrimen  /  Evan Jones as Bosco  /  Cooper Andrews as Mack  /  Maurice Compte as Borracho  /  Kaiwi Lyman as Tony Z Zapata  /  Mo McRae as Gus Henderson  /  O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Donnie

Written and directed by Christian Gudegast

I'm typically a real sucker for crime/heist films, even ones as blatantly derivative as DEN OF THIEVES, which appropriates the look, tone, feel, and story arcs of Michael Mann's 1995 masterpiece HEAT.  As I walked out of my screening of it I thought that there's a reasonable claim to be made that this latest cops and crooks action thriller is a pretty copy and paste remake of Mann's iconic film in multiple respects.  

Buuuut...that doesn't make it bad.  

Originality is not DEN OF THIEVES' strong suit at all.  Even though it's decidedly easy to label this film as a HEAT rip-off, it nevertheless emerges as a fairly well oiled, decently acted, and moderately thrilling rip-off.  Recapturing Mann's unique lighting in a bottle aesthetic from two decades-plus ago is a mighty hard feat, but DEN OF THIEVES seems content with not achieving such high echelons, and on its own terms it's a pretty solid and engaging genre entry, despite some of its obvious flaws and slavish adherence to conventions and troupes.   

Directed with enthusiasm, a good eye for action choreography, but not always with a command of narrative focus by Christian Gudegast, DEN OF THIEVES offers up an opening with a fairly enthralling hook.  After we see a opening text that indicates that Los Angeles is the back robbery capital of the world (breaking down the alarming frequency of the crime occurring down to months, weeks, days, hours and minutes) we are greeted to a pulse pounding introductory sequence involving what appears to be the robbing of an armored bank car outside of a donut shop, perpetrated by an elite group of thieves headed up an ex-military/con, Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), who's joined by Bosco (Even Jones) and Levi (50 Cent).  Intriguingly, it's revealed that Merrimen had no interest in the contents of what's inside the armored car, but rather the armored car itself, which he plans on using for an ultimate score later on.   



Unfortunately for Merrimen and his crew, some of the security men were killed in the heist, which allows for Detective Nick (Gerard Butler, looking like King Leonidas after an all week bender), a Major Crimes investigator to come in with his own motley crew of detectives to investigate what happened and discover who was behind such an attack and theft.  After sniffing around for clues, Nick comes in contact with Merrimen's driver, Donnie (O'Shea Jackson), and after using - shall we say - unlawful methods of capture and coercion, Nick convinces Donnie to work with his men, but still maintain his cover working under Merrimen so that his team can be successfully caught perpetrating another crime and arrested.  Nick, like all obligatory drunken and down on his luck cops, is hitting emotional rock bottom on the home front on top of getting seriously impatient with his new inside man in Donnie.  Taking some peculiar risks, Nick decides to confront Merrimen in public and make his presence felt in hopes of gaining the psychological upper hand against him, who, in turn, is planning a remarkably complex - and kind of ingenious - robbery of the nearly impenetrable Federal Reserve. 

There's no question that Gudegast has studied Mann's playbook and aims to emulate HEAT's look and feel (from the sweeping panoramic shots of L.A. to its cold hued color scheme and synth-infused score, DEN OF THIEVES' hero worship of HEAT is omnipresent throughout).  Yet, that's not to say that Gudegast doesn't have some tricks up his sleeve of his own, which is especially the case with the clean and precise manner that he delivers of many of the film's key action sequences, in particular the aforementioned heist that starts the film, which is committed by Merrimen's crew with surgical paramilitary precision and, for the most part, makes for a highly gripping opening.  I also appreciated the relatively unfussy nature that Gudegast constructs the film's other standoffs and gun battles, which pack an ear rattling oomph factor (the sound design work on display is outstanding - you feel every bullet fired and its impact here), but you also gain a commendable sense of the geography between combatants in their urban warzone settings.  So many novice - and some veteran - directors helm similar sequences in other films with such spastic editorial flourishes that border on headache inducing, but DEN OF THIEVES contains action that never strains the eyes, even when it culminates in shocking violence. 

Two other things stand out in the film as well, the first being the compelling angle to Merrimen's ultimate plan to rob the Federal Reserve, which involves him stealing not the money that's meticulously tracked and stamped, but rather the old money that the reserve apparently takes out of circulation and destroys; his overall plan of attack would make Ethan Hunt's IMF team blush with envy.  Secondly, DEN OF THIEVES contains a few juicy and lived in performances that help make up for the film's other deficiencies.  Gerard Butler himself has been an actor that has allowed himself to slumber in many an awful film over the last several years (like 2017's GEOSTORM to name one), but in DEN OF THIEVES he shows what an impactful and raw presence he can bring to a film that properly harnesses his skill set.  I appreciated how little Butler tries to make Nick sympathetic figure; he's brutish, aggressively foul mouthed, and contemptuously cruel to others throughout, which makes him a protagonist with a bit more heartless edge.  I also liked Pablo Schreiber's nicely underplayed turn as his criminal with a code, not to mention O'Shea Jackson (so damn good playing his dad Ice Cube in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), that plays his criminal with more nuance and layers than perhaps what's even written on the page. 

On a negative, DEN OF THIEVES makes one cardinal blunder of nearly milking HEAT's three hour running time.  At a frequently watch checking and wholly unnecessary 140-plus minutes, Gudegast misguidedly believes that we'll be invested in a long film with Butler and Schreiber as much as we were with Pacino and De Niro, which is a severe miscalculation and overestimation of his audience's attention span.  This leads to the rather problematic and ill focused screenplay, which contains multiple scenes and subplots that could have been excised from the final product altogether and not affected narrative flow or coherence in the slightest.  There's a dubious amount of attention paid to Nick's home life and how he's headed to a nasty divorce (women are treated poorly in this film) due to his infidelity that was referred to later with a few dialogue passages, which makes these scenes and their inclusion superfluous (that, and there not germane to the overall story thrust).  There are other strange moments, like one that again involves the domestic life of a key character, in this case 50 Cent's crook that shows him having his way with his teenage daughter's prom date, which builds towards some laughs, but contributes nothing to the trajectory of the plot as a whole.   

I think DEN OF THIEVES also dropped the ball when it comes to probing some of the more enticing psychological underpinnings of the characters on both sides of the law, like the fact that there are frequent times throughout the film when Merrimen's master thief seems like he operates on a healthier ethical barometer than Nick.  The more subtle themes of the grey areas between cops and criminals is sadly lost on this film, which could have made it more thematically potent as an investigation into corruption on multiple levels.  Still, I don't think that DEN OF THIEVES was trying to operate on that kind of thoughtful dramatic wavelength.  Ultimately, its aims were to be a slick and thrilling L.A. based crime/action thriller that, despite its deju vu level of mimicry of HEAT, comes off as an admirably watchable and entertaining clone.  Usually, I would never condone a filmmaker blatantly pilfering another film (let alone a relatively classic one that's so deeply entrenched in the hearts of genre fans), but DEN OF THIEVES is not a sacrilegious work of plagiarism.  Highly derivative?  Absolutely.  Intense, moody, and moderately involving in its own lurid way?  No question.  And as far as typical low rent and worthless January fare goes, DEN OF THIEVES is a fair cut above the rest. 

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