Good Michael Mann movies, the daddy of modern heist movies, are in short supply. There were heist films before Michael Mann’s Heat and now there are all heist films after Heat. It has completely changed the landscape of the bank heist sub-genre of crime thrillers. Den of Thieves isn’t a Michael Mann film but it might as well be. Writer/director Christian Gudegast is clearly a fan of Heat and other heist films like it. Gudegast’s two hour and twenty-minute-long tale of cops and robbers aspire to be the films that came before him.
The story is set in LA and features a crew of bank robbers attempting to pull off their biggest heist yet, the federal reserve. Trailing this crew, led by Pablo Schreiber, is macho gangster cop Nick Flanagan (played by everyone’s favorite Spartan Gerard Butler) and he will do anything to catch them.
I have long said that clichés are not inherently a bad thing, it all comes down to how the cliché is executed. Den of Thieves is a movie that is riddled with clichés and moments ripped straight from other crime dramas. It isn’t quite clear if this is an homage or just an elaborate rip-off. For big fans of bank heist films, there is much to enjoy here, the shootouts and heist sequences are elaborately staged and well executed. The rest of the movie though doesn’t take enough cues from the best of the genre in terms of their storytelling and character growth.
The best films heist films always fill their stories with strong leads and colorful side characters. Den of Thieves is a very competent and strong film when it engages in the exciting shootouts. The gun echo and boom when each round is fire adding a real intensity to the gun battles that can normally feel stale and by the numbers in lesser hands.
The heist sequences are elaborate. The grand set piece is as implausible as National Treasure and Ocean’s Eleven. But, like those film’s heist sequences, they are so well staged that I was more than willing to let some plausibility go out the window and let the movie have its day.
These sequences would be much better if they were filled with characters we knew anything about. For all the movie’s runtime and seemingly random scenes that are meant to build character (like a scene where 50-Cent’s character has “a talk” with his daughter’s prom date) really don’t amount to much. Den of Thieves never successfully brings us into their crime world and have us accept that world. If we can’t buy into their world the way we do for Doug MacRay in Ben Affleck’s The Town (a superb post Heat heist film), then we can never get behind their quest or their goals. That is a major problem. We never get to see the crew’s personalities shine. There is some exposition given about their past but some exposition doesn’t amount to caring.
I’m not even sure who the lead of this movie was supposed to be? The character given the most development is Nick but if this movie is supposed to follow Nick then this doesn’t give enough of the film to him either. I’m not sure who this movie is supposed to be about.
The story is pretty straightforward but it is constructed in a way to hide an elaborate twist that comes too little too late. Ben Affleck’s The Town was smart enough to not only build elaborate heist sequences but also build strong and well-realized characters. Den of Thieves falls short in everything but the heist sequences
This isn’t a horrible movie but for a movie that I didn’t expect much going into, I was shocked to find a movie that was competent in so many areas that I was actually disappointed by the end. Director Christian Gudegast does show sparks of talent (even if his screenplay lacks strong dialogue) and the actors in the movie are all serviceable (the standouts are O’Shea Jackson Jr and Gerald Butler). Much like Insidious: The Last Key and The Commuter, there is far worse that has been offered in January releases before. Still, Den of Thieves isn’t as slick as the heist that is presented.