Being that it is both a January movie and a heist movie with Gerry Butts, Cheddar Bob, and 50 Cent, viewers could reasonably expect one of two final products from Den of Thieves:
1. A long, bland movie that coasts on perceived ‘coolness.’
2. A completely insane movie that doesn’t fully understand how insane it is.
Imagine my surprise when Den of Thieves turned out to be neither of these things. Instead it’s a solid, violent, unstoppably entertaining film. So what if it’s a bit messy? The potent combination of lowered expectations and a product better than it has any right to be formed into a perfect storm of entertainment. Den of Thieves is an absolute BLAST. I hesitate to even qualify it as a “dumb” movie.
Here’s the gist. The Outlaws are a group of ex-military ex-cons who, according to the trailer, are “addicted to heists.” They’re not. In fact, that incredibly marketable bit of dialogue doesn’t make the final cut of the movie, which angers me beyond belief. It is what it is. I don’t remember if they even call themselves The Outlaws or not, but it’s heavily featured in the marketing campaign which urges you to “pick a side.” So yeah, on the one side we’ve got a The Outlaws, lead by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber of The Wire fame). Despite having a name that’s designed to conjure up images of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, he’s a pretty intense guy. He takes his business very seriously, and this is why he and his gang are planning to rob the biggest bank of all: The Federal Reserve. Along with Merrimen are Cheddar Bob (8 Mile’s Cheddar Bob), Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Cube Jr.), and Levi Enson (50 Cent), who has a last name.
On the other side of this heist are The Regulators, led by Nick Flanagan (Gerry Butts). This group of hard drinking, chain smoking, stripper-loving cops believe that if they can catch The Outlaws in action, they just might solve years of open robbery cases in one fell swoop.
But the most important question in all of gritty LA crime cinema remains: who are the REAL bad guys??
For a movie that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, this pastiche of genre staples manages not to feel like a copy/paste job. Yes, from the smoggy-yet-comforting color palette, to the drone-jazz score, this is very much borrowing from THE Los Angeles heist thriller, Heat. But it has enough of its own flavor to justify existence. By focusing on unexpectedly strong characters (at least our main players — many others are smartly kept in the background), and motivating them realistically, the film is able to create a narrative density that serves the simple theme (who’s really the bad guy??) without treating it simply.
And then comes the heist. It’s in these moments where the film feels a little messier than it wants to be. I suspect this is due to some runtime-reduction shaves in the editing room. Final cut is 140 minutes, but I’d bet good money that the original assemblage pushed 150. I’m sure that the existing version is the stronger of the two, but there are some timing issues (mainly, multiple events will be presented as synced, despite that very much not being the case). This does pose a structural problem, but it’s easy to ignore. Throw enough machine guns in there, involve them in some well choreographed street warfare, and you got yourself a stew goin!
I will happily admit that a few twists and turns really did surprise me, which is always key to a successful heist yarn. Could’ve done without the EMP though. Why oh why does every team of robbers always need the magical, all-purpose EMP to get the job done? There simply must be a better way to write a way around electrical defense systems than employing an EMP (usually depicted as a machine that glows for no reason), but I guess no one has figured it out yet. No matter. It’s really only a small part of the puzzle, and short of the inclusion of this durned EMP, the script is pretty tight.
Gerry Butts appears to have been bitten by a wild Russell Crowe, resulting in his regular transformation into a WereCrowe during full moons. Luckily for us, science seems to have found a way to stop him mid-transformation, giving us this incredible ButtCrowe hybrid that shreds scenery, and jams food into its mouth at every turn. I joke, of course. Gerry showed up for Den of Thieves in a big way. He goes from funny to scary to empathetic, earning every turn. Since his career seems to have become one of big budget B-Movies, it’s easy to forget that he’s a wonderful, wonderfully committed actor when he wants to be. Of all places to show off one’s chops, Gerry Butts chose Den of Thieves, and we must thank him for it. And whoever decided that his already marbly mouth should pretty much always be eating needs to be fired or promoted.
Pablo Schreiber also turns in some excellent work. Not many actors would be capable of getting an audience unironically into it as he unloads clip after clip of ammunition into the the ether while screaming, but he pulls it off.
Another performance to savor is that of O’Shea Jackson Cube Jr. Given the genetic edge he had in Straight Outta Compton, I’ve always been curious to see if he’s as good an actor as I’d suspected. He is. Not only is his role in Den of Thieves bigger than the ad campaign would have you believe, but he serves as the movie’s moral center. It’s a fair amount of heavy lifting, and he lifts it high.
In his directorial debut, writer/director Christian Gudegast has constructed a strong genre film that introduces him as a sturdy visual talent, and marks a step up from his previous writing work (A Man Apart, London Has Fallen). This is a January movie that is absolutely worth seeing.
Den of Thieves opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.