We don't deserve Den of Thieves. While that statement may seem slightly hyperbolic, this writer totally stands by it. In a modern action landscape dominated by DTV diversions into extremity (think: everything by Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins), London Has Fallen screenwriter Christian Gudegast has gone and done the unthinkable: he's made a real movie that simultaneously never forgets that it's still playing to a crowd desperately seeking cheap thrills. Den of Thieves may run 140 minutes, but it's still paced as if it were an hour-and-a-half bullet fest, only stopping to let Gerard Butler's beefy, brutal Major Crimes Lieutenant stare off at the horizon like a proper fiend for mojitos. This is Redbox Michael Mann, yet is still deadly serious in terms of visual construction; a proud matinee programmer with a formal chip on its shoulder.
The set up will feel familiar for anyone who grew up constantly rewinding Mann's Los Angeles crime epic on that old double-VHS tape. Bank heist pro Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) and his crew - Levi (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), and Bosco (Evan Jones) - knock over an armored car and shoot a cop after one of them gets an itchy trigger finger. Lt. "Big Nick" Flanagan (Butler) and his team - Ziggy (Eric Braeden), Borracho (Maurice Compte), and Murph (Brian Van Holt) - arrive on scene and immediately recognize that they're dealing with a set of highly trained mercs. But why did they steal a truck that was empty? Big Nick knows they wouldn't throw down and risk their freedom for such a boneheaded mistake. The theft has got to be part of a much bigger play.
In accordance with crime film law, the cat and mouse games begin. Big Nick and his boys dig into the rap sheets of Merriman and his thugs, hoping to try and get a read on how their minds work. Seeing how LA is the "bank robbery capital of the world" (as the opening title cards inform us), Nick needs to pinpoint how this particular crew operates. Meanwhile, Merriman brainstorms a distraction to throw the cops off his trail, as he's got the biggest score of all planned: robbing the Federal Reserve. It's a target that's been broken into fifty-one times, none of which were successful. Thirty million in unmarked cash awaits if they're able to pull the job off - a feat made all the more complicated by Big Nick's new interest in their activities.
You've seen this movie before and (in fairness), done better (Heat being one of the all-time crime masterpieces). What we've arguably signed up for here is the trashy window dressing, and Gudegast does not disappoint. Re-teaming with his London Has Fallen co-conspirator allows the director/actor duo to really lean into Butler's scummier performance quirks. With Den of Thieves, the Scottish beefcake is giving us his approximation of Al Pacino's coked out Vincent Hanna character. Only Butler isn't ashamed to eat a donut off the ground at a crime scene, or abduct Donnie and mercilessly beat him while chugging whiskey during a hotel room interrogation. Big Nick is really nothing more than an extension of Butler's now infamous Mike Banning character, and wouldn't feel out of place in one of David Ayer's earliest pieces of grimecore pulp (Hard Times, End of Watch). Lieutenant Flanagan is always eating, always screaming "fuck", and will bang your stripper girlfriend if it means intimidating his prey. It's the lowlife cop Butler was born to play, and he practically knocks LA skyscrapers down while chewing the scenery. King Kong ain't got shit on him.
Though Merriman is the mastermind behind these crimes, Schreiber isn't quite De Niro. That's not to say he's bad - as The Wire's Polish dockworker owns a bro-y swagger that renders him compulsively watchable - Merriman just lacks the complexity to ever be held up next to Neil McCauley. However, the former military man commands his squad like they're constantly on patrol in some sort of secret war. The way Gudegast admires their precise movements - often orchestrated via monosyllabic shorthand - with his camera allows us to get a feel for the crew better than their meatheaded banter does. This is necessary, as the freshman filmmaker wisely recognizes that he's never going to get a Val Kilmer-level of emoting out of 50 Cent (despite casting him in the obvious Kilmer role), and instead opts to focus on the calm, rigid manner in which the collective execute their heists.
Gudegast naturally lets Den of Thieves take brief breaks from the action to observe both the cops' and crooks' domestic lives, where we see that the criminals are much more stable than the lawman chasing them. While his family situation - a fed up wife (Dawn Olivieri) who flees her absent, fidelity-challenged husband with their children in tow - is straight out of the Cop Movie 101 playbook, it's also the narrative section where Butler really gets to indulge the hammier bits of Big Nick. Instead of getting a scene where Pacino rips the television out of the wall in front of his wife's new lover, Flanagan barges into a bougie dinner party, signs his divorce papers, and then demands that his ex's potential new beau hug him in front of everyone. Butler is really relishing these otherwise unremarkable dramatic moments, going "big" and totally making each one count.
Visually, Gudegast is hovering somewhere between the digital inkiness of Collateral and the sun-blasted urban apocalypse of Training Day. Los Angeles glows at night, and the blistering sun creates more cracks on Butler's puffy, weathered face during the day. Cliff Martinez (Drive) layers a score that alternates between driving and ambient over top of each grungy frame cinematographer Terry Stacey (50/50) constructs, his camera steady and meticulously placed in a way these DTV ready programmers usually aren't known for. When the violence pops off - which it does with rather satisfying frequency - it's choreographed with attention to the criminals' militaristic movements, each large caliber gunblast deafening as cars are torn to shreds by bullets. In short, Den of Thieves isn't just technically competent, but rather impressive.
At the end of the day, Gudegast's debut behind the camera is still cosplaying as something greater than it is, so you're either going to accept this fact and indulge its sleazy charms, or reject it outright. More succinctly, Heat is the movie you want to marry, while Den of Thieves is the one night stand you want to wash off your skin with two cold showers the next day. Butler's Big Nick may have a Miami Vice stare, but he's still talking out the side of his mouth while trying to hide his chunky Scottish brogue in the very next scene. However, there's something to be said about a movie both recognizing what it is while never giving up its greater pretensions. Den of Thieves could've easily been a routine thriller, but instead becomes an idiosyncratic delight by beefing up every trope (including a twist ending stolen from another '90s thriller) like it was injected with horse steroids. Regulators, mount up.