What it's about: Ray, Donnie, Enson, Bosco and the crew are an elite group of bank robbers. They come from high level military background where they have learned discipline, communication techniques, combat, all the traits that are perfect for pulling off the impossible heist. They devise the perfect robbery with the opportunity to steal millions of dollars that no one will be accounting for. That doesn't make it any easier or less dangerous, though. On the other side, Nick O'Brien [Gerard Butler] is a elite cop with demons. He's had his eye on Ray [Pablo Schreiber] for a while and has pulled in the newest recruit Donnie [O'Shea Jackson Jr.] to try to get intel on their latest score. When the heist finally goes down, these two opposing teams meet with violence to gain redemption or the biggest score of their lives.
I know I complain about this a lot but Den of Thieves is 140 minutes. That's too long. Typically, I come to a heist film for something quick and sleek and entertaining, just like the robbery I like to get in and out as swiftly and economically as possible. The problem with Den of Thieves, however, is it wants to be something a little more. It reaches for the heights of a AAA drama and it is those scenes that ultimately drag the film down.
The opening scene heist of an armored truck is a simple, no frills job. Though there isn't much cinematic about it, the scene is interesting enough for the display of the tactical team -- the communication and movement is hyper specific. The most surprising thing, though, is how casually cops are killed once it starts going bad. The tone is set on all fronts: incredible yet casual violence with an economic style.
Den of Thieves spends too much time on a heavy marital drama subplot that doesn't successfully add the intended stakes. Basically, despite being the typical cinematic hero, Nick is a bad apple. There are questions how straight-laced he is as a cop, but he is clearly an alcoholic and an all-around terrible person. So, his wife leaves him, taking their kids, and we're left with Nick getting some good man cries in. If I wanted to care more about Nick then I suppose this helps build that tone, but Butler's performance is fall too broad to take him seriously.
The heist genre always plays with audience sympathies. Usually, we have to reconcile cheering for the criminals because they are doing things the right way or are using the money for something good or simply because they are badass. Making the main cop character the most flawed character has some merit in that way, but it just doesn't come together in any satisfying way.
On the other hand, the thieves of Den of Thieves don't really garner much sympathy, either. The film positions Donnie [O'Shea Jackson Jr.] mostly as this character, as he's an outsider, sort of the audience's way into the elite team, and he's the one most targeted by the police. At the end of the day, though, there really isn't anyone to outright root for. This isn't exactly a problem, but it is weird from an entertainment perspective.
The centerpiece heist of the film takes up most of the runtime's final hour. It is long and elaborate, just as you'd want from an expert heist film. Unfortunately, it runs out of steam pretty quickly. Much of it is pretty dull, without enough tension -- there are the typical spots where characters are held up or need to tread lightly, but these close calls never work. The most effective moment involves a traffic jam scenario on the getaway that foretells a serious gun fight.
This, then, ultimately draws the line on where Den of Thieves survives and fails relative to the best of the heist genre. It perhaps isn't smart or stylistic enough to rely on a major heist setpiece in the typical way. When it can be a guns-ablazing hard action film, it's fine. Between the opening sequence and the final gun battle, that should be where the film focused its efforts. It may have been striving for more than that, but I guess that's it downfall. Maybe that is my expectations or biases going in, though, too.
If you were a professional criminal, why would you have a large, distinctive, easily identifiable neck tattoo? Sure, you can cover it up, but why even bother?
If you read my Kickboxer: Retaliation review you know I'm always happy to see mixed martial arts fighters show up in these mid-budget, mid-acclaim action films. Den of Thieves doesn't boast the same expanse of talent but it does feature three pretty big names in the sport: UFC champions Max Holloway and Michael Bisping [who makes a cameo at the film's coda] and MMA pioneer turned actor Oleg Taktarov.
I'll take Pablo Schreiber as a hardened, gruff criminal. The role doesn't need him to show any range, so I wouldn't say it is a great performance, but he is a strong presence. He's been due a break out for a long time so I'm glad to see him here even if Den of Thieves isn't a kickstart to genuine leading man success.
The last-minute realization slash flashback sequence to see how it all *really* went down is always a very silly part of these kinds of films. For Den of Thieves, it is a big old shrug.