Sometimes I feel sorry for the people that have to work with Gerard Butler. The Scottish action star is rarely a sign of quality, and when most people see him in a trailer they immediately think “nope”. He was the star of one of 2017s biggest flops, the disaster of a disaster movie Geostorm, so his next role had to be something pretty special to pay back the faith that his dwindling audience have in him. Den of Thieves provides Butler with this role.
The directorial debut of London Has Fallen screenwriter Christian Gudegast, Den of Thieves is the 2018 version of Michael Mann’s Heat with a couple of shots of whisky thrown in for good measure. Before we go on, I feel like I have to make this clear: Den of Thieves couldn’t lick Heat’s boots (it would settle for kicking it in the balls) but it is a diverting piece of entertainment of the kind of that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore.
Cops and robber’s movies have been thin on the ground in the last decade, with genre mainstay’s Antione Fuqua and David Ayer moving their careers away from the thin blue line. The last movie of its type that made any kind of ripple was John Hillcoat’s Triple 9, but no one saw it. This means that there is a space that Den of Thieves can fill within the pop culture landscape.
Den of Thieves is simple in its story. Gerard Butler fills the Pacino role as Sheriff Nick “Big Nick” O’Brien, the “original gangster cop” as he is described by a colleague who hates him. In the De Niro role is American Gods standout Pablo Schreiber as bank robber Ray Merrimen, and what these two lack in acting talent they make up for in muscle tone. Between them is Oshea Jackson Jr as Donnie, who is seen as the weak link in Merrimen’s crew.
The first hour of Den of Thieves is straight up scene-setting, with Butler chewing the scenery in a variety of situations that show how deranged he can be as Big Nick. He dominates the film with his brash demeanour, and some insane acting choices: he ruins at least two dinner dates, uses his divorce papers as a flute, and introduces himself by eating a bloodstained doughnut and throwing the leftovers all over a crime scene. You cannot take your eyes off him.
This does mean that the rest of the cast gets the short end of the straw. Pablo Schreiber gets next to no characterisation other than the fact that he’s good at robbing banks. Apart from Jackson, the crews of each lead barely get a look in, although in the case of 50 Cent it was a smart choice: one of the highlights of the film is the way he puts in an ear piece, that was seriously the best take they could get.
Den of Thieves really comes into its own in its second half, which involves an elaborate heist to rob the Federal Reserve in Los Angeles. The heist itself is reasonably clever, as the film morphs into a hybrid of Heat and Oceans Eleven. Despite the fact that Michael Mann should be calling his lawyer, Den of Thieves doesn’t have the characters to make its story truly memorable. In Heat the crimes were window dressing for a story that was about how two people on opposite sides of the law shared the same destructive ambitions, where #Den of Thieves is more concerned with macho posturing and the need for one last job. That doesn’t make Den of Thieves a bad film, it’s really quite entertaining, but it could have been so much better. Still, that’s high praise for a Gerard Butler film.