Den of Thieves interweaves the stories of a group of cops and criminals in the theft-ridden city of Los Angeles. The film follows the lives of its ensemble cast, focusing on lead character Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler), a crooked cop on a mission to stop a group of elite criminals from continuing to wreak havoc on the city. The criminals include leader Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), Levi Enson (50 Cent) and Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.).
The film opens with an intense, gripping action sequence. Merrimen and company attempt to steal a van for a heist, ending up in the midst of a shootout with the LAPD. The action of this scene and those that follow are key aspects of the film’s success. Director Christian Gudegast’s meticulous direction remains crisp throughout the entirety of the film, especially within the heist scenes in the third act. These heart-pounding sequences demanded full attention from the audience.
While the action, visuals and direction of Den of Thieves were noteworthy, the long-developed script could have benefited from further editing to ensure that each scene advanced the actual storyline. Much of the film is spent focusing on the familial lives of the lead characters, although very few of these scenes are relevant to the rest of the film. For instance, Nick is struggling through a divorce, while Levi helps his daughter prepare for prom. The scenes are a notable attempt to humanize the film’s characters, but they fall flat. Though the incorporation of the overall theme of family adds depth to the otherwise one-dimensional characters, the scenes felt out of place in the action-packed context of the overall film.
With that being said, the cast did a good job given the unsatisfactory script. Butler does an outstanding job of individualizing his character, though he often succumbs to the clichés of the “crooked cop,” leather jacket-wearing badass. Similarly, Schreiber effectively convinces the audience of his capability as a criminal mastermind, though his motivations throughout the film are kept a mystery.
Ultimately, O’Shea Jackson Jr. really carries the film.Jackson Jr. proved himself in his most substantial role yet; his character is often the bridge between the good cops and the criminals. The nuances of Jackson Jr.’s performance were a delight to watch throughout the film. His work in the heist scenes were especially noteworthy. Jackson Jr.’s facial expressions did much to elevate the tension of the moment and highlight his character’s nerves in the scene.
Despite its successes, Den of Thieves does not provoke any new thoughts or break any new ground for the heist-thriller genre. The film feels like an amalgamation of Inside Man, The Dark Knight and The Usual Suspects, though it never reaches the heights of any of these films. What does make Den of Thieves stand out, however, is its morally ambiguous themes, wherein no character can be pigeon-holed as good or evil. While at times some of the plot developments seem unrealistic, they work within the gritty world of the film. The blurred lines between good or evil, like Nick’s “bad-cop” way of solving crime and Merrimen’s past history as a marine, make the film all the more interesting.
While the characterization, script and occasionally uneven tone burdened an otherwise great film, Den of Thieves is gripping enough in its most exciting moments to be worth watching.