Film Review – Den of Thieves
Den of Thieves
Somewhere between a frat party and the take-down of an armored car lies this age-old tale of cops and robbers. A testosterone fueled cocktail of bravado and automatics, Den of Thieves is treading in awfully familiar territory. Though instead of being the bug it may immediately seem to be, this is a feature, much to the movie’s benefit. Cast in the long and influential shadow of Michael Mann’s 1995 crime-epic Heat, this at least has something sturdy to prop up its emulation.
Los Angeles County Sheriff, Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) and his elite unit of crimefighters are surefire stand-ins for Heat’s Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his team, going up against robbers that start both movies off with the heist of an armored car. In place of Heat’s cool thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), a military vet turned criminal with a strategic mindset and whole lot of ammunition. Merrimen and his crew consist of Levi (50 Cent), Bosco (Evan Jones) and Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), among an assortment of others, aimed on the specific intent of ripping off the Los Angeles Federal Reserve. Flanagan of course has designs to stop them, and over the running time of two hours and twenty minutes, plays a cat and mouse game of pissing contests and uncomfortable hugs to do so.
At its best, this is well paced, mostly well shot and has an appropriately moody, ambient electronic score from Cliff Martinez (Drive, The Neon Demon). It also has some competent action scenes consisting of big, very loud guns going off. At its worst, there’s an adolescent, toxic-male, bro-tality that permeates the slick veneer and amounts to a lot of puffed-up chest pounding. The side-effect, intended or not, is a seriously entertaining Gerard Butler going all in on the over-the-top, coke-addled antics of Pacino’s performance in Heat.
Surprisingly for a movie that runs as long as this and consists of a rather stripped-down plot, there aren’t really any moments that drag or makes one aware of a long runtime. Like the movie it wants to copy, this does try to give its take on crime and the law a modicum of a gray area to exist in. To that end, we’re presented with the lives of the crooks as real, down to earth people. They’re tight knit and have families and look out for each other. Unfortunately, the movie is merely going through the motions of these things and gives no real gravity to anything that might otherwise be emotional. We have no real reason to care about these character’s “real lives.”
When the action starts going down and people start dying, there’s a lack of weight to the lingering moments the movie gives us. Practically everything else here though is entertaining to the most serviceable degree. Between Schreiber’s bearded stares and Butler’s ham-fisted machismo there’s certainly a bit of fun to be had watching the outright absurdity of it. Legitimately, to its credit, is the evenhanded direction from longtime screenwriter, first-time director Christian Gudegast. This could easily be riddled with overly-shaky handheld shots and a litany of quick-cuts to hide poor fight choreography, as would its popular mandate dictate, but instead opts for a steadier, toned down approach, punctuated with moments of visceral spectacle designed to bring a terror to the reality of gunplay.
That isn’t to say this presents any commentary on violence or guns, it most certainly doesn’t, but like with the films of Michael Mann, it seeks an emotional reaction based on factors that play into reality, and nothing more. Stunts don’t consist of people intricating their bodies into impossible situations, they consist of fingers pulling triggers from behind parked cars and somebody’s limbs taking intended results. It’s finality approach to shootouts that’s less kinetically glamorous and more brashly clunky. All in all, for a movie that could easily have been a cheap knock-off and isn’t, this is a rather fun way to spend an afternoon.