I don’t often do this, especially after a movie starring Gerard Butler, but after watching his latest, Den of Thieves, I turned to a fellow critic sitting near me and asked “Am I crazy, or was that pretty good?” Thankfully, he confirmed that I was, in fact, fully sane and that a film directed and co-written by the man who wrote A Man Apart and London Has Fallen is a quality product not despite Butler’s presence but in large part because of it.
And although filmmaker Christian Gudegast has borrowed heavily from great films like Heat and The Usual Suspects, that seems to only add to the reasons I dug this epic-length (about two hours and 20 minutes) heist film. It’s about a military-style group of bank robbers who go head to head with one of Los Angeles’s most ruthless and feared police forces, set up to take down criminals of this magnitude without really bothering with that whole arresting thing. Butler’s Nick Flanagan runs the law enforcement group, but sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference between his team and the bad guys. At one point, Flanagan even tells a suspect that his group is far more fearsome than the crew robbing the banks.
Den of Thieves tells us right off the bat that Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the nation, and it’s clear from an opening sequence in which a heavily-armed team led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) steal an armored car that these guys are seasoned professionals, trained in the military and eager to drop any uniformed officer that gets in their way. (They seem to have a code that prevents them from killing civilians.) Among Merrimen’s team members are Levi Enson (50 Cent) and driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr. from Straight Outta Compton), who end up getting snatched off the street by Flanagan’s guys and eventually spilling his guts about an end-all heist involving the L.A. brand of the Federal Reserve.
Although less flashy and jokey than the Ocean’s movies, Den of Thieves features a misdirect as part of the big heist that is worthy of the great con movies. But the real reason the film works so well is that it isn’t ever afraid to let certain non-essential scenes go long in the service of character development and authenticity. In fact, there are entire sequences that could have been extracted in the name of speeding things up, but they end up revealing so much in those scenes that they are well worth keeping in. Sometimes the moment involves Flanagan’s messed up home life with wife Debbie (Dawn Olivieri) and their two daughters, or it’s a very funny moment when Levi’s daughter’s prom date comes to pick her up only to get a stern talking to by dear old dad.
But it’s the extended action sequences that rule the day here. Director Gudegast (who co-wrote the film with Paul Scheuring has a keen sense about how to stage and execute gun battles, car chases, and other forms of general mayhem. He also isn’t afraid to keep things sleazy, gritty, and as far away from polished as you can. The language and attitudes are raw and far from politically correct, the violence is loud and brutal. It feels like the entire final hour of the film is the climactic heist of the Federal Reserve shown in real time (it’s not, but sometimes it sure seems like it).
Schreiber is a great younger foil for Butler’s older, crusty team leader, who seems perpetually hungover. There are moments in the film where the two men are in the same room together, know who the other is, and yet Flanagan does nothing just because he’s intent on doing things by the book, for maximum impact against his collective enemies. The movie is well written, masterfully executed, and actually gives us characters (good and bad) who we can care about so that when/if they get shot, we actually give a shit if someone lives or dies. It’s an easy formula that too many action filmmakers don’t understand.
There is more than one scene in which things feel a little preposterous or over the top, but they are overshadowed by some tense and fascinating sequences in which we watch the planning and execution of a seemingly impossible heist. There are also genuine surprises where I wasn’t expecting any, and that’s a tough thing to pull off without it feeling like cheating. But Den of Thieves works by keeping it’s feet firmly grounded and rarely taking shortcuts.