As a crime movie buff, I’ve had almost all the different “meals” available in the wonderful cuisine of crime (just roll with it). I know all the ingredients intimately, I’ve seen them all used before. From the daring plan, to the assembly of the rogue’s gallery to the saucy double-cross. The mark of a real good crime film, and a good film in general, is its use of the same ingredients to produce an original and unexpected result. And in that respect this film exceeded all my expectations.
Written and directed by Christian Gudegast, Den of Thieves is a modern take on the bank heist flick involving a gang of ex-military and ex-con types on one side and an elite unit of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. named the “Regulators” on the side of the law.
I’m a big fan of films that grip you from the start and this one does it by dropping you in an insane urban firefight with sound design rivalling Michael Mann’s Heat in technical realism. In other words when they let them thangs go, it sounds like Chirac! From there, the movie takes you along for a ride in the seedy underbelly of L.A. as the Merrimen gang plans to rob the Federal Reserve Bank.
And here, Gudegast shows his brilliance by expertly foreshadowing the multiple twists and turns the plot will go through. The story is tight, if not afraid to retread some tired ground (i.e cops and doughnuts). Speaking of which, this film isn’t above using the substance abusing cop, even going so far as to name check Bad Detective. But Den of Thieves manages to cover these few blemishes with its filmmaking prowess. This film immerses you in a world of crime, showing the extreme lengths and depths some of these characters have to take in order to survive.
Another much underappreciated aspect of crime movies is an exciting use of tension. This is critical to ensure an interesting transition between firefights and big set pieces, and Den of Thieves delivers in spades. Also, I’m not above turning a blind eye for scenes that don’t flow so well as long as they’re as entertaining as the one featuring 50 cent in the garage.
The acting is a mixed bag, although through no fault of the cast. On one hand, you have excellent acting from the likes of Gerard Butler, Pablo Shreiber and O’shea Jackson Jr. And on the other, you have the absence of most of the other characters in the crew, except when simply advancing the plot. Sadly, excluding the aforementioned garage scene, this applies to 50 too.
Similar to Heat, I had the feeling this film was “trying on big brother’s clothes” and they don’t quite fit yet. No where is this more obvious than the restaurant scene where both parties meet in public for the first time. This scene had the potential to be a lot more impactful, but I digress. Flawed as it may be, this film never loses sight of the gritty heist movie it’s supposed to be and Den of Thieves achieves that goal. In terms of realism, you always feel like you’re in the middle of another gunfight, and you can bet no one is walking away after getting shot like in other power fantasy films.
So to wrap up, we have on our ingredient list- a daring heist plan, an interesting team assembled, an equally interesting opposition, a crime underworld setting, multiple set pieces with an action oriented director, oh, and a whole ton of guns. Standard fare in terms of ingredients, but this film serves up an original dish managing to use familiar crime movie elements in a fresh way.