Dir. Christian Gudegast
Starring: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
What can you expect from a heist movie starring Gerard Butler and 50 Cent? To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I took my seat to watch Den Of Thieves without seeing the trailer, and not knowing the plot synopsis. Like most modern day heist thrillers, this film takes a lot of its cues from Michael Mann’s Heat, and whilst first time director Christian Gudegast (he has previous experience as the screenwriter of films including London Has Fallen) doesn’t hit those heady heights, his debut behind the camera isn’t wholly unsuccessful.
The film plays as battle of wits and skill between a gang of thieves, and a gang of cops. The emphasis here being that the cops are as morally bankrupt as the thieves. The thieves include get away driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), right hand man Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and are led by mastermind Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber). They are planning one last job which will have them set for life, stealing from the federal reserve. On the other side are Los Angeles’ Major Crimes Unit, a rag tag group of cops led by a grizzled Gerard Butler as Nick O’Brien.
This is as cliched as it gets, but that’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had here. The action is visceral and intense. The direction is great when focusing on the heist aspect of the film. It’s tense, taught and well paced. The last act of the film is an incredibly well made action thriller. It’s clear that Gudegast knows how to handle the action, and this film will act as a great calling card for him. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is great as well, previously standing out in Straight Outta Compton, he steals the show again here. His Donnie coming out as the only likeable character. If the whole movie had been the first ten minutes and the last 40 minutes it would be a perfectly serviceable thriller.
It’s when the movie isn’t focusing on the heist that it starts to lose its footing. It shares some of the DNA as Heat. It’s a heist movie set in LA, focusing on the battle between a criminal mastermind and a cop out to get them. That’s where the similarities stop though. Heat was about two consummate professionals trying to outwit each other. Here the cops are defiantly not professionals. Turning up to crime scenes drunk. Torturing suspects. It’s made clear that the cops are just as horrible as the thieves, which is a problem because when the showdown comes I don’t know who to route for. Heat also had Al Pacino as the cop, and let’s be fair, Gerard Butler is no Al Pacino. He does give it a shot, but it just doesn’t work.
It’s clear that Gudegast is a better director than he is a writer. It’s the scenes in between the action that really let it down. There are on or two good moments. A tense encounter at a shooting range being one of them, but the main dialogue heavy scenes are so clunky. The male posturing is so over blown I thought at first they were playing it for laughs, but no, this film is completely straight faced. Butler is given a family to try and raise the stakes, but he’s such an asshole you don’t believe he actually cares about them. The rest of the two crews are given no back stories, no family ties, hell I don’t think half of them are given names. It all adds up to a finale in which I honestly felt that if all he characters were to be killed, I wouldn’t care about any of them. Which raises the question, what is the point of all this?
As action spectacle, Den Of Thieves is completely serviceable. In the moments it does works it’s really good, but these moments are undercut by such awful, non-sensical filler. Christian Gudegast has shown that he has the chops to direct tense and tight action sequences, but needs a better script. Leave your brain at the door when seeing this one.