Who do you root for when the good guys aren’t that good, and the bad guys have better family lives? Den of Thieves explores that question fairly well while weaving a cat and mouse tale of two gangs of highly armed, highly motivated, and highly skilled men against each other, as their leaders match wits to see who is the better master of their element.
The film opens with a tactically executed armored car heist, which is interrupted by law enforcement and ends in a firefight, leaving several officers down, as well as one of the robbers. As the gang arrives at their meetup point, we begin to meet the members of the crew, starting with their leader, Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and Levi Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). We see a tight-knit group, who have clearly been working together for some time, though Donnie seems to be a newer piece. It’s also clear that by killing cops, the crew has painted a big target on themselves.
After meeting the outlaws, we meet the Regulators, the “good guys” of the film, to use the descriptor quite loosely. Led by gangster cop, Big Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) and his right-hand man Gus Henderson (Mo McRae). They are the Major Crimes unit of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Dept. Where the criminal gang is cold and efficient, the Regulators are brash and messy, and as the film develops, we’re not really sure that the good guys are really better than the bad guys.
As the film plays out, the outlaws are planning to rob the Federal Reserve in Los Angeles, hoping to get away with around $30,000,000.00 in cash. The task is described as impossible, but the crew has inside intel that they believe will make them successful. On their tails, the Regulators are putting together pieces of the puzzle, stretching back through years of unsolved heists, and have put together the members of Merrimen’s band. They peg Donnie as the weak link and bring him in for the most illegal questioning ever. During this kidnapping/interrogation, Flanagan believes that’s he’s gotten the upper hand on Merrimen by having worked information out of Donnie, as well as thinking that he’ll be able to get more from Donnie later. The following events, however, leave the viewer wondering who has the upper hand, and, as the tension mounts, and the day of the big job comes, one doesn’t know if they are rooting for the gang to pull off this Ocean’s 11 type of heist, or if the Regulators should take them down.
The action scenes are well directed, and there are many moments of realism in them. The pacing is on point, building the tension as the movie plays out and leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat as they try to figure out who has the upper hand in this game of cat and mouse. Den of Thieves is reminiscent of Heat from 1995, showing the back and forth as the criminals set up, and the detectives putting the pieces together while showing the family sides of both crews. And while it lacks the star power of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, the character portrayals done in Den of Thieves are superbly done by the actors. Butler’s Flanagan is a man who has set his own life out of control and is finding that he may not be the big man that he thinks he is. The prom night scene at Levi’s home, with his daughter’s date being brought into a room of men who would give Freddy Kreuger nightmares, for a pre-date pep talk is a fun break in the action, and I’m sure that clip will be shared often.
There are a few pieces of footage that don’t seem like they are needed, though. With Flanagan already having showed himself to be of a less than stable temperament, and a man willing to do sketchy things as part of his job, the arc of his wife leaving him, and a moment of him obnoxiously signing the divorce papers he’s been served felt like they weren’t needed, and didn’t develop the character much. Likewise, there is virtually no character development of any of the characters outside of the two leaders. In fact, most of the characters don’t even have last names listed in the credits.
That said, the Den of Thieves is definitely worth seeing, as the little flaws don’t take away from the tense back and forth between the two teams to see who comes out on top, nor from the action scenes, which are crisply executed. The twists and turns build the suspense well, and at the end of it all, the viewer is left relieved to be able to release the white-knuckle grips on the armrests that they didn’t realize they had. I highly recommend checking this one out.
About Den of Thieves
Synopsis: A gritty Los Angeles crime saga which follows the intersecting and often personally connected lives of an elite unit of the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. and the state’s most successful bank robbery crew as the outlaws plan a seemingly impossible heist on the Federal Reserve Bank of downtown Los Angeles
Directors: Christian Gudegast
Writers: Christian Gudegast, Paul Scheuring
Stars: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Mo McRae
Runtime: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes