Heist movies are a tricky thing to execute well. If the heist isn't cool, complex and at least somewhat believable, the movie is going to fall apart pretty quickly. It's in this respect that Den of Thieves succeeds and that's what makes it a surprisingly fun, but definitely not great, heist movie. You can tell that everyone involved wanted this movie to be Heat, and while there are certainly parallels, it never quite gets there. And that's not even really a knock. Nothing is likely to ever top Heat in the crime thriller genre. That aside, I feel like Den of Thieves may surprise some people.
Den of Thieves takes place in Los Angeles, California, as so many of these robbery movies do. The movie follows two different groups of people; an elite unit of the LA County Sheriff's Dept. and the state's most successful bank robbery crew. Following an elaborate yet puzzling heist, the Sheriff's department is on the clock to try and figure out what these outlaws are planning next as their lives begin to intersect and connect. Can this gang of expert criminals pull off the seemingly impossible and successfully rob the Federal Reserve Bank of downtown Los Angeles? Or will the "good" guys come out on top? As always, there's some grey when it comes to how we define the word good in this movie.
Christian Gudegast, who previously worked with Gerard Butler on London Has Fallen, re-teams with him as both writer and director of this movie. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Den of Thieves is that, if you sort of read between the lines a bit, it's easy to see that there's a straight-up great movie in here somewhere. Gudegast just can't seem to get it there. But the movie we do get definitely comes with some B-movie charm (if you can call it that) and a whole lot of schlock that is fun in its own way, but prevents this from becoming a crime movie classic. Instead, we have a movie that would probably get buried in any other month of the year, but works as a January release. You should be able to have a good time with the right mindset, but still, schlocky has to be emphasized.
To that point, we need to talk about the best/worst thing in Den of Thieves, depending on what kind of moviegoer you are, and that is without a doubt, Gerard Butler. As "Big Nick," the leader of this elite group of Sheriffs, Butler turns in one of the all-time memorable wacky, over-the-top, master class in ham-fist performances you will ever see. We're talking Nicolas Cage at his wackiest kind of crazy here. It's truly something. There's hardly a scene where he isn't talking with something, be it food, gum, booze or a cigarette, jammed in his mouth. That's just one example. This is commitment on a level that is either admirable or concerning. Man, does he go for it though. Be it for better or for worse, he's going to be the most memorable thing about this movie. And by the way, this is a movie about pulling a heist at the Federal Reserve.
Honing in on that for a second, this movie elevates above its schlock, again, if you go into it not expecting a masterpiece, with its action and heist sequences. They're very well executed, with some notable logic flaws aside, and are quite entertaining. There are some twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing. Some more effective than others. Again, it's hard not to wonder if this movie could have been great in the hands of others at certain times, but Den of Thieves exists as it is and you can either go for this mixed bag of a ride, or you can go watch an awards season contender instead. But if you're looking for something that pairs well with a large popcorn, this may just do the trick.
It's so easy to see, on paper, why someone would bet on this movie. It's so easy to see the potential, I'm sure, on the page. Does Den of Thieves maximize that potential? I doubt it. But at the end of the day, if a movie like The Fate of the Furious (which I'm in no way bashing) can make more than $1 billion worldwide, I have to imagine there are quite a few people out there who might enjoy this. STX didn't get the crime classic they may have been hoping for, but they got themselves Gerard Butler dialed up to 11, which is something to behold in its own right.