When it comes to movies about crime, filmmakers tend to focus on stories about bank robberies. Unlike other more heinous crimes, bank robberies — especially sophisticated ones — are intriguing, with the audience often left rooting for the criminals to get away with them. That goes double when the cops put in charge of taking down the robbers are equally unsavory, as is the case in Den of Thieves.
The film, written and directed by Christian Gudegast, pits a notorious robbery crew, led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), against the Major Crimes unit of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, led by Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler). As the robbery crew, which also includes Levi (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), becomes more brazen, Nick and his group — known as the Regulators — increase their questionably legal tactics to stop them.
Part of the gambit of the film is for the audience to decide which side they’re on — the Outlaws or the Regulators. And for much of the running time, it’s a true moral conundrum. Do you side with the guys who acknowledge they’re criminals, with all of the seedy things that go with it? Or do you side with the cops who behave like criminals, not giving a damn what anyone outside of their tight-knit group thinks?
Gudegast puts a lot of effort into the two competing factions posturing toward each other, but he doesn’t spend as much time getting to the heart of who they are. There are a couple of feeble attempts at showing some of the men’s home lives, but they’re so lackluster that you wonder why they were included at all.
Instead, it’s the interactions within and between the groups that make the film what it is, with the hard-boiled characters that inhabit each side keeping things interesting. This is somewhat surprising on the Regulators’ end, as, apart from Nick, they all tend to blend together. However, the menacing feel put forth by them, and the film in general, makes up for a lack of details.
The story is close to standard-issue when it comes to bank robbery movies, but Gudegast has a feel for pulling off twists without telegraphing them. The elaborate high-stakes robbery at the center of the third act conjures comparisons to other robbery films like Ocean’s Eleven, Heat, and Inside Man, even if the film isn’t quite as high quality as those classics.
Nick is a character who’s right up Butler’s alley, someone’s who’s rough, uncouth, and ready to rumble at a moment’s notice. Schreiber is familiar for anyone who’s watched The Wire or Orange is the New Black, but this is his most high-profile role to date. He proves to be a natural leader, even when in the presence of the more well-known 50 Cent. But the best of all is O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who proves that he’s capable of much more than just playing his dad in Straight Outta Compton.
You probably won’t remember Den of Thieves once the calendar turns to February, but it more than fits the bill for solid entertainment on a cold winter’s day.