Den of Thieves (2018), directed by Christian Gudegast, has its share of problems. In fact, there is a lot of the film that is just plain bad or poorly constructed. Yet, when the last bullet casing lands on the concrete and the shredded currency settles, it ends up being pretty enjoyable.
Den of Thieves has a wolf of a twist hiding amongst the sheep of pointless plot elements
The film follows two groups: L.A. Sheriff’s Department led by Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler), and an elite group of bank robbers led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber). There is an intent to show that it isn’t as black and white as cops and robbers. These cops aren’t clean, although the film doesn’t show them to be truly dirty, and the robbers are all ex-marines. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really develop either group enough, despite wasting a lot of time on various backstories.
The largest waste has to belong to Nick Flanagan and his failing marriage. This storyline gets at least four scenes dedicated to it, and there is really no catharsis by the end. It shows us that Flanagan isn’t perfect and that his choices are ruining his life. Yet, it doesn’t get resolved, nor does it payoff emotionally at any point in the end. Is he the hero, or is Merrimen?
With regard to Merrimen, he gets far less character development than Flanagan. We learn that he and Levi Enson (50 Cent) are longtime friends and that Levi has a daughter. In the scene where we meet Levi’s family, it depicts her prom date arriving in the middle of the afternoon to be intimidated by muscular men because…parenting! While Levi gets this treatment, we still don’t really learn anything about Merrimen, other than that he’s “smart”, that he appears to be the mastermind of several unsolved bank robberies, and that he recently got out of prison for some other charges…and that’s about it.
Too long and for no clear reason
There are several scenes like Levi’s daughter and Flanagan’s various family dramas that could have been trimmed to shorten this film. Flashbacks are used to try and establish story arcs that don’t pay off. In the opening heist, one of Merrimen’s crew, Bosco (Evan Jones), demonstrates how trigger happy he can be. After that scene concludes, there is a confrontation back at their base, and clearly, Bosco is going to be a loose cannon that will result in a later downfall. NOPE! This should be refreshing as it breaks a common cliché, but it instead feels like another scene – among several – that could have been trimmed to make the film a bit tighter and on point.
The real character that plays an audience surrogate is Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), as he is early on forced to be the middleman. He is the newest member and driver of Merrimen’s crew. Donnie is picked up early by Flanagan’s. They force him to give up what he knows on Merrimen and offer him his freedom in exchange for his cooperation. Jackson has proven in Straight Outta Compton (2015) and Ingrid Goes West (2017) that he is a future megastar. He is good in this film, but there is so much time spent on Butler and staged heist discussion sequences that he is lost at times. However, he is the part of the film that stands out in the end as its clear highlight.
On the bright side, the action sequences are competent, the heist premise is executed well with just enough tension to keep the audience engaged, and the film ends in a way that I didn’t see coming. To that point, I’m not sure if all of the extra scenes that led nowhere were red herrings to keep the audience from anticipating the twist, but that doesn’t mean they were well written or structured; they simply weren’t.
Back to the big heist in the film – Merrimen targets the L.A. branch of the Federal Reserve, and more specifically, the bills set to be shredded. Those bills are being removed from circulation, and their serial numbers are removed from the databases. This creates a tasty target for criminals as these bills are untrackable, but the challenge is getting in. That’s clearly one of the highlights of this film, and where Gudegast channels his inner Soderbergh and a little Christopher McQuarrie while writing Den of Thieves. It’s not as good as either, but it still ends up being satisfying.
The film has flaws, but it managed to win me over. In fact, it threw a hail mary pass with 3 seconds left on the clock and scored. I was convinced I hated this film and was so frustrated with so many of the choices. The ending of the major heist sequence and the direction the film appeared to be going seemed wrong and pointless, and I was prepared to absolutely hate it. Yet, in the end, I walked out smiling at a twist I never saw coming. Whether it’s actually decent or just managed to pull the wool over my eyes enough to surprise me with positivity, Den of Thieves earns the Decent Watch rating.