I really wanted to like Den of Thieves a lot more, but the film and script have too much going against it. The worst thing about the film is the running time and the unnecessary bloat – I watched the unrated cut of the film that spans two hours and 28 minutes, the theatrical cut runs two hours and 20 minutes. The film is just too heavy without much substance or payout – especially the middle section of the film.
This film would have been much better if it were cut to 90 minutes. The film spends a great deal of time on Big Nick and his family issues, which by the end of the film amounted to nothing. The same can almost be said about Levoux’s family, though it does bring a certain bit of “has something to lose” to Levoux. For Nick, there wasn’t anything that his family issues brought to the table, other than to show that he’s an asshole who drops the f-bomb too much – along with every other character in the film. Tip to the writer/director of the film (Christian Gudegast): The amount of f-bombs dropped by characters do not in anyway correlate to the badassness of characters.
Director Christian Gudegast obviously has studied Michael Mann’s excellent film Heat. He pays homage to the film through a lot of elements in the film, most visually so through his near photocopy of Mann’s shooting style and lust for Los Angeles. For the most part, that works. What he lacks in the script are compelling characters like Hanna and McCauley. Nor does he have the star power to pull it off like Pacino and De Niro did. Gerard Butler does turn in an excellent performance as Big Nick. Pablo Schreiber does OK as Merriman, but he is nowhere as good as De Niro. The cat and mouse game between Big Nick and Merriman felt a bit hollow. In Heat, what worked very well and was key to the film was that Hanna not only was chasing McCauley and McCauley running from Hanna. What worked in Heat was the idea that the both respected each other for their respective skills. There was never anything like this in Den of Thieves.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. turns in a fantastic performance.
Along the lines of paying homage to Mann, Gudegast stages an armored truck robbery at the beginning of the film, like Mann does in Heat. It does not capture the same sort of intensity as Mann does. At the end of the film, Gudegast does a decent job of staging a tactical shootout in the middle of traffic – sounds a lot like Mann’s downtown LA shootout in Heat? Yup, it does. But, again, it lacks a certain intensity to it – there is not much punch to this shootout or its ending.
The ending of the film is too clever for its own self and pushes the boundaries of believability. I had a hard time buying into the idea that Gudegast is trying to sell at the end of the film, it was all too convenient.
Den of Thieves is a glossy homage to Michael Mann’s Heat, it is shiny and for the most part technically well put together. But, by the end of the film, it shows that it is merely an empty shell of a film that overstays its welcome.
What really was Gudegast trying to achieve with the Big Nick separation and divorce plotline? Other than to show that he’s an asshole, it did not do anything to show that he was emotionally compromised by the whole thing.
While I really thought O’Shea Jackson Jr. was fantastic in the film, his character and the ending where he turns out to be the mastermind of the whole robbery was a bit of a stretch. The script tries to be too clever in this respect and it all comes off as contrived and is not earned as a plot twist.
50 Cent’s character, what really did 50 Cent’s character do outside of robbing banks? How did he account for the income that would afford him the house and lifestyle that they showed onscreen? And why hire 50 Cent for the role if you’re going to make him so… passive to the point where I wondered if he really was a tough guy. And while we get a few scenes of him and his family, they never really amounted to much, nor do we get any emotional attachments to the character because it is so thinly written. So, by the time we enter the final shootout and 50 Cent’s character dies, well, there’s not much for us to really care about.
What would have worked better is if the writer/director could have excised 50 minutes from the film. Take all the time spent with Big Nick and his family – the fight at the beginning, the supermarket scene, lawyer serving up divorce papers, the visit to the youngest daughter’s school and the drunken visit to his sister-in-laws house – take all that and cut it completely out. That’s a good 20-30 minutes of film that really did not add up to much. Then cut out all of the family scenes with 50 Cent’s character – the pre-prom scene with the daughter and her date; the scene of him watching his daughter go off to school – cut all that. The FBI agent material in which Big Nick and some FBI agent verbally spar that happens at the beginning, near the end and at the end. Cut all of that also. That adding nothing to the film, the organic gum bit, what was that? That was a waste of time. There’s a lot of extraneous stuff that could have been cut to really tighten up this film that is completely flabby in the middle section.