Den Of Thieves

by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday January 18, 2018

'Den of Thieves'
'Den of Thieves'  

For decades now, many films have attempted to mirror the cat-and-mouse momentum and epic crime-saga stature of Michael Mann's 1995 opus "Heat." We've all seen the structure: A career lieutenant, often through unconventional and crooked methods, does whatever he can to catch a master criminal in the act and bring him to justice.

The case is much of the same-old, same-old for "Den of Thieves," the directorial debut of Christian Gudegast, a C-movie screenwriter whose rsum includes lightweight blockbusters like the 2016 sequel "London Has Fallen" and 2003 Vin Diesel vehicle "A Man Apart." In his first time behind the camera, filming a script he also penned, Gudegast serves up a surprisingly entertaining mix of Mann homages, original storytelling and tense thrills with "Den of Thieves."

The story revolves around a group of career bank-robbers known for their elaborate heists (an ensemble that includes Pablo Schreiber as mastermind Merriman, O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Donnie the driver and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson as the muscle/co-pilot Levi). On their tails is Lt. Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) and his crew of crooked cops, men who smoke, drink and cheat on their wives. In an early scene where Flanagan corners O'Shea Jackson Jr.'s Donnie to press him for information, he's fairly blunt about his intentions. "We're the bad guys," he tells Donnie, assuring him that he and his crew would much rather put a bullet in your head than deal with arresting you. "Plus, paperwork ..." he adds.

This sets in motion the interesting themes within "Den of Thieves", focusing on the double-dealing games played between two sides of the same criminal coin. Yes, one side has badges, but the film is constantly testing your allegiances. Odds are, with most audiences, you'll find almost as many people rooting for the bank robbers as they are the cops. And this makes "Den of Thieves" both a thrilling action picture and a fascinating morality play, something that transcends good vs. evil and shows us the gritter, not-so-simplified truth about American crime and class.

The class component comes into play once we learn of the movie's primary heist, a major set-piece that involves breaking into the Federal Reserve and stealing the $30 million in currency that is deemed "unfit for circulation" by the Reserve and shredded daily. This idea of destroying so much cash infuriates our crew of desperate criminals, but it also presents the perfect opportunity to walk away with un-trackable currency that nobody is going to be looking for in the first place. It's an ingenious plot, and thankfully the movie doesn't squander the roots of its story.

Butler, as our token "bad lieutenant" character, is introduced via one of those back-and-side-profile shots which give you all the tough-guy basics - the slicked-back hair, the grizzled beard, the sunglasses meant to mask an obvious hangover - and I'd be lying if this intro shot didn't have me rolling my eyes back into my skull. But then my eyes were quickly redirected back to the screen, where they remained throughout the movie's (slightly too long) running time of 140 minutes. Butler gives a truly fixating performance, which stands as one of his best to date, at times embodying the energy and aptitude of a brutish Russell Crowe. Other performances, like Schreiber and Jackson Jr., are also captivating and help provide a weight of empathy to the film's criminal characters where other films would often resort to stereotypes.

All in all, this is such a surprise for the mid-January release slog - an entertaining, funny and consistently anxious film that leaves you teetering on the edge. Do you need to choose sides? Not really. The film just showcases the egotistical warfare of pitiless men who both think they're on the right side of the battle lines. In reality, they're all in the middle, hand in hand as they draw the line themselves.