Den of Thieves (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although “Den of Thieves,” written and directed by Christian Gudegast, can be criticized for not having an original bone in its system, it is worth seeing because it takes what works from familiar stories involving cops and robbers and manages to turn them into solid entertainment. I wager that nearly every viewer who is intrigued by heist films will be filled with nervous energy as thieves attempt to rob the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve, a place so secure—filled with numerous guards, state-of-the-art cameras, and sensors—that over fifty prior groups who tried were all captured. They didn’t even make it past the lobby.
Perhaps the most interesting element is the screenplay daring the viewers to prefer the thieves over the cops. The former group is led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), one who is not only smart but also highly experienced in tactical military combat, while the latter is spearheaded by O’Brien (Gerard Butler), equipped with such gall and explosive personality that when he enters a room it feels as though a tornado is wreaking havoc through it. Their macho clashing is both amusing and intense, some might say homoerotic, a strange combination that does not always work especially when paralyzing glares are directly preceded by effort in producing real human drama.
The material falters when it tries to provide character details outside of one’s occupational proficiency. For instance, the relationship drama between O’Brien and his wife comes out of left field; it relies upon our familiarity of other, better movies involving overworked men of the law and their proclivity toward cheating on their spouses. While the acting is solid, the content as well as context is lacking. It is not specific enough to this story. I go as far to say that it isn’t balanced. Why is it that we learn about O’Brien’s life at home but we learn nothing about Merrimen’s personal life? It does not work at all since the less unlikable of the two, and more interesting, is the ex-convict.
Undeniably, its greatest strength is the harrowing action sequences. When lawmen and outlaws must result to utilizing assault weapons and nothing is heard except bullets being fired and metallic casings hitting various surfaces, it jolts the viewers into paying complete attention. Michael Mann’s “Heat” serving as one of its central inspirations, down to the camera placement and expert editing, great energy is created when characters must move from one point to the other like chess pieces while dodging a rain of bullets. In movies of lower caliber with less stakes, not once do we believe that cops will fail to claim victory. Here, however, “heroes” and “villains” appeal to be on equal footing. And that’s exciting.
Had the writer-director aspired to make a leaner picture by dropping every ounce of personal drama altogether and focused on characters simply doing their jobs, “Den of Thieves” might have worked on an entirely different level. Because what’s right on the money is the fact that these characters need not be liked. They simply have to pique our interest, for us to be curious enough that we do not wish to see them drop dead before we had time to figure them out. In other words, the material is not quite free from the restraints of its sub-genre.