Both of the films main characters establish their dominance early, Gerard Butler's character "Big Nick" O'Brien, leads the Major Crimes unit in Los Angeles, and comes on to the first crime scene slovenly, hungover and eating a donut from the crime scene. At the same time, he asserts his dominance by talking through the events of the robbery with his crew quickly, getting an understanding of what took place, then talking shit to the lead incoming FBI officer. Within minutes, the Major Crimes unit understands what type of efficient and dangerous foe they’ll be facing and that’s because both sides, the cops and the criminals, share a reckless abandon for anyone outside of their crew.
It's hard nowadays to do something completely different in a heist movie. Most possible outcomes have been explored and sometimes repeated. It's clear that Director/writer Christian Gudegast knew this and was trying to execute with the same inspiration from those other films, while adding his touch of attitude, with a little levity in order to pay homage to some of the greatest heist movies made.
When it comes to a heist film in 2019, by now there are a standard collection of tropes, some often important to make the typical heist action work: a string of successful heists, proving the crew is good at what they do; A select character of the group that goes too far with their greed, escalating the situation (either on accident or on purpose); A head law enforcement officer (Butler) vs. the leader of the bank robbers (Schreiber); A major set piece, which can include a shocking gun fight; A double crossing agent within the heist and the climactic one big final score. Of all those tropes, it is the Butler vs. Schreiber fights that drives this film forward, two men headed towards destruction, even to a point where Den of Thieves has one of the more exciting gun fights in recent cinema.
The entire existence of Den of Thieves is a tip of the hat to Michael Mann’s Heat, considered by many to be the best heist film of all-time. But it’s the daytime gunfight scene in Den of Thieves that feels identical to Heat, but uniquely it’s own version. While it may not reach the level of style in Michael Mann’s Heat, Gudagest does a great job of placing the audience in the madness, entertaining throughout, choreographing the action with a handheld camera and surprising his audience with where the violence can go. As a lover of the heist genre, when I prepare to watch one, I want three specific things: great entertainment, great action and the element of surprise.
But what is it about Den of Thieves that separates it from other heist films? 1.) Both crews, Major Crimes and Merriman's crew, have a ferocious attitude to what they do, while operating on a high level, walking with cocky swagger, and making no sloppy mistakes. This creates extreme moments of intensity. 2.) Gerard Butler’s character is a complex and tortured soul. A true antihero, while he is law enforcement, you are not sure whether you want to root for him or continue to watch him self-destruct. They do such a convincing job to make him a chain smoking slob, where you can hear his strained breathing throughout and it just feels unhealthy. And 3.) The double crossing within this heist is done with such complexity that DOT is worthy of multiple viewings, each time revealing a new mastery. The build up to the final heist and chase scene are a smokescreen for what is the actual goal. Butler and Schrieber are so singularly focused on each other that they miss it and so will the viewers. That singular focus was exactly what the real thief was counting on. Gudagest’s narrative sleight of hand does the trick, forcing the audience to ask questions long after it's over. There’s a quick final shot of the victorious crew at the end and it makes you think through everything again. Who are the winners? What has been gained? That final scene embodies my appreciation for Den of Thieves, because it plays a game with the viewer, making sure you are following, testing your own morality as a person.
Den of Thieves is greatly misjudged by many on the first watch. Audiences need to give it a revisit, study it again, to truly get a full picture of a hardcore heist picture. While the runtime is a bit long, it never drags because there’s a relentless barrage of action sequences once it has started, each scene unique in its own way. This is a heist film, you have to understand that before you watch and reset your expectations of the characters. Everyone in this film is a flawed scumbag and I accept that, knowing that was a possibility going into it. The thieves will do anything to reach their goal and the cops will do anything to stop the thieves. While this can be off putting in moments, it is the world you are dropped into, an uncoated reality, forcing the audience to adapt. At its core, Den of Thieves is an unapologetic action film, mixing in a dark and disturbed sense of humor, and cementing itself as one of better heist films of the 21st century.
DEN OF THIEVES IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX. READ AMovieGuy.com WRITER LEO BRADY'S REVIEW OF DEN OF THIEVES HERE
Written by: Charles Gainey
October 29th, 2020
MOVIE: DEN OF THIEVES
STARRING: GERARD BUTLER; PABLO SCHREIBER; O’SHEA JACKSON JR.; 50 CENT
DIRECTED BY: CHRISTIAN GUDEGAST
AMovieGuy.com’s Charles Gainey RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
“We’re cop killers now.” Pablo Schreiber's character, Ray Merriman, makes this statement within the first ten minutes of Den of Thieves. It does not take long to establish who these men are and the heightened stakes moving forward. This is a movie that comes in hot, setting the tone with these four words, and building the tension till there’s no other option but to explode in a hail of gunfire.