There’s a moment early on Den of Thieves, the feature-length debut of screenwriter turned director Christian Gudegast (London Has Fallen), where it becomes clear the whole endeavour is going to take itself far too seriously and try way too hard to be an uncompromising look at life on the streets. It comes when grizzled, hungover Detective ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien (Gerard Butler) arrives at the crime scene of a murdered cop. Grumbling about needing something to eat, it’s suggested/joked that he eats from a box of donuts that’s been dropped by the deceased police officer. Without missing beat, Nick rifles through the blood-splattered box to pick himself a stale donut, chomping through it without a care. It’s such a ridiculous scene, that one could be tempted to think that Den of Thieves is a satire, but as the minutes turn into hours… it becomes obvious it’s anything but.
Plot wise: ‘Big Nick’ is on the hunt for a gang of Marines turned bank robbers, who have pulled off some of the most audacious robberies in America. As well as following him around eating discarded pastries, we shadow the leader of the bank robbers, Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber, The Wire), his lieutenant Ensen (50 Cent) and ace driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr, Straight of Compton). Quickly realising that Donnie is the shortcut to getting Merrimen, Nick begins to harass the kid until he spills the beans on his boss’ next caper. From there Den of Thieves goes from being a grizzled game of cat and mouse, into a full-blown heist movie.
Whilst the whole thing certainly looks amazing – the opening scene is admittedly well put together – and the audience feels like they could reach out and wipe the sweat of Jackson’s brow, Den of Thieves has some shocking issues with pacing, resulting in a flabby two-hour-plus action thriller, when, sans the superfluous family elements, it could be a lean 100 minutes. There’s no guarantee that the quality of the film would be any better, but its brevity would make it easier to forgive its sins. It feels like a criminal act to make the second half of your film a bank heist, and yet offer nothing in the way of stakes or suspense.
Those who find Michael Mann’s filmography to be somewhat lacking in the masculinity department will be pleased to hear that Den of Thieves is as gritty as a quarry and deep fried in testosterone. And that is certainly not a sign of quality. Gudegast’s LA is one where the subtle art of dialogue is replaced with never-ending homophobic comments and f-bombs. It’s a world where female characters are squashed into the societal roles of mother, maiden, spinster or whore, with neither role giving much in the way of character development or dialogue. Take for example, Nick’s wife, played by Dawn Olivieri, who is painted as the kind of miserable archetype who just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be her cheating husband.
In fact, as the film pushes closer towards Merrimen’s next big robbery, we become privy to a lot of snapshots of family life for several main characters. Doing this ordinarily can heighten or skew a film’s preordained morality; it can shake up an audience’s beliefs in what really makes someone a good guy or a bad guy. However, like Nick’s marital difficulties, nothing we’re shown really adds anything to the characters, and we certainly never feel like they truly live off screen.
If there is a reason to see Den of Thieves then do so for Jackson who, amongst the black and white characterisation and over-the-top male posturing, manages to anchor the film in some sort of reality as a wide eyed not-so-innocent getting further and further out of his depth. With both Butler and Schreiber never extending themselves further than a growl, it’s refreshing to watch the Straight Out of Compton star steal the film from under their noses.
That said, Jackson can’t save Den of Thieves from being what it is: a messy and loud affair that is too po-faced for its own good.