Den of Thieves review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s a moment in Den of Thieves where a quirky band of police officers banter about an early morning crime scene. They’re in store for a heist picture and it seems like they’re slowly waking up, the coffee just starting to kick in. They approach this scene as though they’ve done it a dozen times before, plucking donuts from the crime scene while they match gruff wits. This more or less defines the appeal of the film: a familiar ride we’ve been on dozens of times but seasoned enough to know what works well enough and what doesn’t.
Gerard Butler rolls into the picture as the gruff Detective Nick O'Brien, never underplaying his weary too-old-for-this charm while getting giddy to shoot up some bad guys. He lays in thick to this role where when questioning a bar owner for info he joking speaks about wanting to have sex with the male owner. Nick is part of the Major Crimes Unit, devoted to very unorthodox means of law enforcement, which essentially just gives the film a ticket to craziness. And after so many of these crime/heist pictures that play things so slow and understated to the point of boredom, it’s refreshing to see something from this tired genre with some life.
Nick’s team tracks down a suspect, Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), a bartender who is a bit uneasy. Being as intimidating as he is, Nick harasses Donnie into giving them info. And the Major Crimes Unit needs a lot to solve the crime of why a gang would steal an empty armored truck. In true anti-hero fashion, Nick makes his declaration of why Donnie should spill his guts for a room full of tough law enforcers not going by the book: “You’re not the bad guy. We are.” Kinda obvious, given that Nick has massive issues with his crumbling family life, but at least there’s no danger of misinterpretation here.
The gang soon learns of Nick and make themselves known, prepping a cat and mouse game of car chases, shootouts, and hostage situations. The gang is led by Marine veteran Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), committed to making sure his demands are met and that he’s one step ahead. It’s then up to Nick to be faster, louder and meaner to dash Merrimen’s scheme of making off with truckloads of money.
Den of Thieves has a lot of familiar scenes but always tries to put an extra level of grit, as though director Christian Gudegast ensures every bit of dialogue is spouted with gravel in teeth. Consider the scene where Merrimen holds up a bank and Nick is still fighting with a stuffier member of the law. When Merrimen’s demands are not agreed upon and a hostage is killed, Nick explodes on his feuding law enforcer, calling him all manner of profanity in his spitting rant. Of course, Nick will disobey direct orders and sling even more verbal assault before he readies himself to go in guns blazing with a nuts-to-this attitude towards handling crime properly. Again, nothing new with a law enforcer breaking the rules, but, again, he’s in a band that are more or less the bad guys.
Naturally, Den of Thieves is high on action to match its raging dialogue. Punches are thrown, guns are drawn, trucks smash into each other, and shootouts that happen in traffic are pretty intense. One may have seen these types of scenes staged better in previous action scenes. As an example, the climactic shootout in a traffic setting doesn’t feel as gritty as, say, the skill of Michael Mann’s Heat. But for doing its best to be as gritty as it can be, this picture or less delivers on a genre that has been in desperate need of a jolt.