Expectations are everything in a movie like Den of Thieves. The film’s trailer is fortunately straightforward in placing your expectations where they belong—showing Den of Thieves for the type of movie it simply is: a testosterone-driven bro fantasy, complete with all its elements. Two crews face each other on opposite sides of the law, as the anti-hero rough-around-the-edges Special Crimes unit, reminiscent of Mackey’s Strike Team from The Shield, faces an ex-military group of heisters in the bank robbery capital of the world in Los Angeles.
Special Crimes is led by Nick Flanagan, played by Gerard Bulter as the sleazy alcoholic whose morality lands on the “good guy” side of the film due to his badge. Opposite Flanagan is an ex-Marine known as Merrimen, played expertly by Pablo Schreiber as a no-nonsense hard ass with the mixture of brains and brawn of an elite soldier, a leader of men. Where Flanagan’s respective team of cops is a peripheral cast of undeveloped characters, Merrimen’s team includes Donnie, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. who largely drives the early narrative in flashbacks of how he joined the team, and Levi Enson, played by a stoic 50 Cent.
The narrative skews more toward the perspective of the heisters, an understandable choice given the inherent elements of a heist film to which Den of Thieves hopes to pay homage. Still, the most questionable decision comes from Flanagan’s pseudo character development in the form of a fed-up wife, who predictably wants to leave him during his investigation. She’s sick of the alcohol and cheating that she has obviously dealt with for years longer than the five minutes the audience needs to peg him as a toxic man detrimental to his wife and kids. Uselessly cliché and failing to provide any significant meaning to the character, the 140-minute runtime could be shorter with tighter editing of superfluous plots like this one. These plots highlight Den of Thieves’ passive usage of women who seem to have no place in the bro fantasy, aside from strip club scenes or as scattered evidence that the men have things to lose in terms of wives and daughters.
Other superfluous scenes become bigger head-scratchers, typically including the few women speaking roles, such as Merrimen sending a stripper to sleep with Flanagan to steal his phone number, seemingly only to allow Merrimen to call his opponent during the heist to acknowledge that this one is a fight to the death. “I did what you told me to do,” her only line of dialog that doubles as a summary of the film’s brief use for women. Even sillier are the intermittent and inexplicable confrontations between the two teams, a type of psychological warfare mixed with testosterone-laden staring contests that less propel the plot than simply fuel the theme of Den of Thieves as a dick-measuring contest between two men and their crews to prove who’s tougher, stronger, and smarter.
Of course, audiences are implicitly asked to suspend disbelief that a major crimes unit could not simply move on their intel before the heist begins. Instead, the building tension comes from Flanagan knowing the target and date of the robbery, and Merrimen knowing the heat is on them, but everyone is restricted to their corners until the bell rings for the fight to begin.
Among the biggest payoffs of the bell when it finally rings are the nature of their gunfights – a gunfight in the truest sense where no one is close-quarters enough to have their gun dislodged and pivot the battle to punches and takedowns. The bullets are deadly punches that stay genuine in their danger. When someone is shot, they are likely killed. It adds a sincerity rarely seen in action films and is the most refreshing contribution Den of Thieves adds to the genre of heist movies.
Ultimately, Den of Thieves outsmarts itself in a climax that cannot be unpacked here. Suffice it to say the film went too cute for its own good and attempts to match against other noteworthy action-drama twists that come across as messy, unbelievable, and unnecessary. Still, Den of Thieves has its moments to satisfy the heist fantasy of many movie-goers, so long as your expectations are in the right place. Would I recommend the film? Not for a movie theater price tag. When it arrives on your favorite cable or streaming service though, turn off your brain and indulge guilt-free with the knowledge this won’t be your favorite heist movie, but it will have elements you’ll remember nonetheless.