Studios routinely use January-February as a dumping ground for their un-loved films; genre movies with B-list actors that earn neither critical nor commercial success. Den of Thieves may appear to meet the criteria, but don’t let that deceive you. It’s a gritty character-driven thriller that doesn’t play to the stereotypical, and works hard in its 140-minute runtime to shake the ‘dump’ month stigma.
Los Angeles, as much a character in this film as the actors themselves, is presented from the outset as the bank-robbery capital of the western world. The opening scene lays down the foundation for what’s to come with a heist in progress. While it may be convenient to label this a ‘heist movie’, it’s more so a story about the men. Den of Thieves centres around two competing ‘gangs’ – a highly skilled crew of bank robbers (the Outlaws) and the hard-as-nails unit of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (the Regulators) working to take them down.
Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) is the hyper-intelligent ex-military leader of the Outlaws; members include right-hand-man Enson (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson) and hardened-veteran Bosco (Evan Jones). After a 6-year stint in prison for robbery, Merrimen reassembles his highly-trained crew with plans to go after a big fish – the Federal Reserve Bank. Bartender and ex-con Donnie Wilson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is the new guy on the block who takes up the gig as their “driver” – in truth, he does more squealing than driving. With the ultimate heist in their sights, they’re poised to walk away with $30 million in unmarked U.S. currency that would otherwise make its way to the shredders.
The mission may seem impossible, but screenwriter turned first-time-director Christian Gudegast did, in fact, visit a Federal Reserve Bank to give the premise authenticity by exploring the building itself. The fact that he and the film’s producers were researching for a heist movie was unbeknown to bank personnel though, as Gudegast sensibly presented the project as a romantic comedy instead. It was a scheme that paid off given how meticulously executed and nail-bitingly tense the Reserve Bank scenes are.
Before the Outlaws can pull off the mother-of-all heists, they must outwit the Regulators, who’ve been on their tail since an operation to seize an armoured truck took a brutal turn. ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien (Gerard Butler) is the lead detective of the major crimes unit with loose morals, that see him go to any length to catch the culprits. He’s the alpha male among his hand-selected team, but his obsession with the job has his personal life blow up, causing cracks to appear.
There are no good or bad guys in Den of Thieves – just two sides of the same coin, with little separating them. Each character sits comfortably in the ‘grey’ area between right and wrong. Pulling off the impossible and being chased by the best is what drives the Outlaws more so than financial gain. They uphold their version of a code of conduct – only shooting uniforms. Contrastingly, the Regulators are a far cry from the conventional hero with their renegade approach to serving justice, and penchant for women and late-night drinking. Neither side play by traditional rules that makes them equally matched for the face-off that is to come.
All roads lead to the inevitable clash between the two sides, which manifests itself as a sort of Black Hawk Down (2001) meets the streets of L.A. It’s all-out urban warfare with a massive exchange of gunfire. The nuanced scene and constant inertia keep the viewer moving forward and thoroughly enthralled in the action. As is the case with most films in this genre, we’re rooting for the Outlaws and hoping they are able to outwit the Regulators in the end.
Gudegast, whose screenwriting credits include A Man Apart (2003) and London Has Fallen (2016), wrote Den of Thieves in the mid-2000s and had been trying to get it made ever since. At one point it was even poised for a TV pilot. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gudegast is specific in his capturing of the city’s atmosphere – the look, feel and vibe of its people. He held out to direct the film despite interest from other producers and directors. It’s clear this is a passion project for the writer/director and one that he’s had over a decade to refine.
Solid performances from the leading men make this release worth your time. Schreiber or “Pornstache” as he’s known to OITNB fans, plays the quiet moments of his character flawlessly. Here’s a fun fact for you – Pablo is the half-brother to actor Liev Schreiber. Then there’s Butler’s portrayal of ‘Big Nick’. He wears the dual actor/producer cap for this film and put on nearly 15kg through a vigorous boot camp before tackling the role. Butler completely embraces the character and delivers a performance that is easily among his best. Finally, O’Shea Jackson Jr. silences the naysayers by stealing the show and proving he has serious talent. This film is the third from Jackson, whose breakout role was playing his father Ice Cube in the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton (2015).
Den of Thieves is a film that has a lot going for it with twists and turns throughout. As Butler says in the trailer, “we’re dealing with a different animal here, boys”, and that couldn’t be a more telling statement for the movie itself. It’ll have to compete at the box office with a directorial debut from another respected screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) in Molly’s Game. But while Gudegast may appear to have the weaker resume, his visceral and immersive film holds up with the best of them.
Although set in Los Angeles, a vast majority of the film was shot in Atlanta, Georgia.