This heist movie wants to be Heat but it ends up being Lukewarm.
Den of Thieves is a litany of undercooked ideas and missed potential but its biggest issue is the fact that it’s a laborious slog. It wants to be a mix of Heat and The Usual Suspects but it’s not. Inside, and you get a glimpse of it every now and again, is an action-packed, potentially pretty decent 100-minute heist movie but what is served up is a 2 hour and 20-minute movie with too much filler – it’s right there but you can’t see the wood for the trees.
The idea is a pretty good one. $120 million in cash is taken out of circulation and destroyed by the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve every day and a notorious, elite crew of bank robbers, led by Pablo Schreiber’s Merrimen, has their eyes on it. The only thing stopping them from pulling off the ultimate heist is LA’s most feared division in law enforcement, led by Gerard Butler’s Nick ‘Big Nick’ Flanagan, and they plan to do it right under their noses.
Merrimen is a hardened and unhinged career criminal, Flanagan is a screwed-up and deeply unorthodox law enforcer and both head up their own bands of misfits and mad dogs. Both are potentially fertile grounds for creative dialogue and vibrantly crazed or tortured soul performances but there’s none of that. It’s clearly signposted, even referenced but when it comes to actually acting it out convincingly, most of them fall short – Schrieber is the only one who goes anywhere near all out.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Butler who can be a bad ass with the best of them but here he seems to swing between leaden and underdeveloped – he’s oddly reserved and more ‘Meh’ than ‘Mad Dog’ and only really steps up his game in the film’s final third.
A key factor in any heist movie is tension and here that’s constantly impeded by sluggishly played out, and overlong, set-pieces as well as some entire scenes and chunks of dialogue that add nothing. Ultimately, it’s like driving down a street with humps and just when you get up a bit of momentum, you have to slow down again, then you try to pick that momentum up again before you slow down for the next hump. After a while it gets frustrating and you just want to get to where you’re going.
No one here is given great dialogue, some of it is borderline pointless, and so the likes of O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson don’t have a chance of doing anything more than chewing on the clichés and bland lines they are fed and that, like the heist itself, is criminal. Even the heist itself, the jewel in the crown here, is smart but lacks tension and pace, which are both crucial elements.
So what saves this from being one of those ’ignore it until it hits Netflix’ kind of movies? The second unit work that shows off LA and adds atmosphere are deftly executed, some nifty cinematography, Cliff Martinez’s Drive-esque score which brings the classy richness and depth that the performances should be bringing and the film’s general sound design are all undoubtedly best experienced in a movie theater. All the characters here have potential but no one ever realizes that and so you don’t care about any of them. By the time you get to the sting in the tail, too many viewers will be past caring and the others will likely have seen it coming.