Like most answers on a math test, Den of Thieves, directed by Christian Gudegast, looks good on paper. It is a new take on the cops and robbers formula with Gerard Butler playing Los Angeles’ ham-fisted deputy sheriff “Big Nick” O’Brien, whose group of elite killers, the Regulators, is trying to track down the most notorious heisters in the city.
But for all the high-octane action Den of Thieves has to offer, it overestimates the importance of its side stories, and falls short of establishing higher stakes.
Escalating from the well-choreographed opening shootout where an armored truck robbery goes awry, Ray Merrimen, played by Pablo Schreiber, and his crew of ex-military goons plan their biggest heist to date — hijacking $120 million in un-serialized bills from the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve — with the Regulators hot on their tails. The operation has all the complications of a film from the Ocean’s franchise, and is one of the few times Den of Thieves truly delivers.
But while Ray may be the undisputed mastermind of the crew, his tactics are often too over the top to be taken seriously. His plan to rob the “Fort Knox” of Los Angeles is in no way foolproof; however, it is mercifully taken at face value and all the holes in his logic are shrugged off because the crew trusts him.
This approach works far better for Den of Thieves’ pacing than Gudegast’s heavy-handed exposition does, and suspends the audience’s disbelief in spite of how outlandish Ray’s scheme is.
Although Ray is running the show, O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s Donnie Wilson is the runaway star of the gang. Bartender by day and getaway driver by night, Donnie is a rookie caught in the middle of Gudegast’s game of cops and robbers. Apprehended early on and involuntarily thrust into the role of double agent by Big Nick, Jackson Jr. handles the role with surprising depth, especially during Den of Thieves’ nail-biting grand heist. His character arc is what drives the plot home to the film’s final twist, and is one of the film’s few saving graces.
This case is also set up to be the all-redeeming break for Nick’s team, but as a unit they remain hapless, always one step behind Ray and his crew for reasons that escape common sense.
In several asinine scenes, Nick purposefully intrudes into the crew’s private lives, but these encounters serve no greater purpose, merely convoluting the plot when any other approach to tailing the gangsters would have been more effective.
To make matters worse, Nick’s personal life is overexposed throughout the course of the film. His shamble of a marriage only bogs down the plot, needlessly reminding the audience of what they pick up right off the bat — that he is a scumbag whose life seemingly depends on chain-smoking cigarettes. Even in Butler’s first scene, his character is undermined for his degenerate lifestyle, but Gudegast never explores Nick’s descent to this position. Nick’s only redeeming quality is that Butler plays him; he would otherwise be as unremarkable as the rest of the Regulators.
On the other hand, Ray’s crew has a more balanced and recognizable cast of characters. Their penchant for armed robbery speaks for itself, and Gudegast wastes very little time explaining the motivations of these thieves outside of acquiring mountains of cold, hard cash. What can be said for the crew’s backstory is tacked to a wall in Nick’s office and quickly touched upon during Donnie’s interrogation. After that, their histories do not need to be brought up — the focus rests solely on their heists.
More so than with the Regulators, there is a strong dynamic between the gangsters, bordering on the romanticized fraternity of fictional crime syndicates seen in The Sopranos and Goodfellas. The few times the audience is keyed into the crew’s actual families are Den of Thieves’ funnier moments, and are nice juxtapositions to the atrophy of Nick’s home life. These scenes cement the gang as a close-knit group, effectively winning the audience over to their side, while marginalizing Nick’s chance at a big break.
The only other redeeming quality in Den of Thieves, after its lovable cast of thugs, is its firefights. When everyone starts spraying bullets like paintballs and reloading bottomless magazines, the film finally starts to hold its own.
These tense shootouts add some much-needed volatility to an otherwise predictable film, and are a pleasure to watch. Sadly, this is not enough to justify the price of admission.
What ultimately hurts Den of Thieves, beyond its needless exposition, is how clearly it imitates other, more successful crime thrillers to the point of being formulaic. Even the action scenes start to feel like missions straight out of the video game franchise Grand Theft Auto, coincidentally also set in a fictionalized Los Angeles.
There simply is not enough content to distinguish Den of Thieves from its inspirations, and so it reverts to a sort of bingo game where the audience tries to guess which film Den of Thieves is currently emulating, for lack of actual entertainment.