Den of Thieves

Sarah Ward

The derivative heist thriller owes a considerable debt to its influences, but can’t shape them into an involving action effort.
Den of Thieves

A heist is afoot in action-thriller Den of Thieves. Several, in fact. A crime gang wreaks havoc across Los Angeles, working towards a big bank-robbing job; a determined group of cops tries to put them in their place, using whatever means necessary; and both toy with the law and order divide. It’s as formulaic as it sounds, but the film’s main pilferage doesn’t merely involve its warring characters. Cobbling together pieces of many a similar effort, London Has Fallen screenwriter turned first-time director Christian Gudegast must hope the audience won’t notice he’s borrowing so liberally from everything — from Heat and Point Break to The Usual Suspects and The Driver, actually. 

Sadly for Gudegast, that plundering is obvious from the moment the movie opens with text on screen, announcing LA as the bank robbery capital of the world. From there, it only becomes more pronounced as duplicity, double-crossing, dirty cops and deviousness all form part of the narrative. The heist genre isn’t small, but Den of Thieves’ debts are many, and its derivative aspects are roughly deployed. The idea that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery must’ve been infectious, with the feature’s star — London Has Fallen’s Gerard Butler — towing the line by doing his best Mel Gibson impression, even if it’s thoroughly unwanted. 

Butler plays 'Big Nick' O'Brien, the obsessive head of the County Sheriff squad facing off against career crim Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber, TV’s American Gods) and his not-so-merry ex-military men. The latter are introduced trying to boost an armoured truck, killing the guards and shooting down cops, with the former arriving in the aftermath, though that’s just the beginning of their dalliance. With the likes of loyal offsider Levi (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Power) and getaway driver Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr., Ingrid Goes West) on his crew, Merriman is planning to break into the US Federal Reserve, where the banks keep their money. To catch them, Nick strong-arms Donnie into to cooperating with law enforcement. 

If the routine nature of the story hadn’t already sent Den of Thieves hurtling for grating territory, then Gudegast’s fondness for clichéd macho posturing, his thinly written characters and his eager yet bland helming would’ve, as spread across 140 lengthy minutes. While his is a film big on detail as far as the main heist is concerned, the writer-director is willing to favour a gritty aesthetic over fleshed-out protagonists or involving action at every turn. And, to veer off on superficial tangents that add little to his key players, such as Nick’s marital troubles and Levi’s attempted intimidation of his daughter’s prom date. The end result is a mess of elements that overstay their welcome, and a central caper that loses momentum; being a fan of the genre, as Gudegast clearly is, isn’t the same as diving into it in a capable fashion. 

Enter Jackson Jr., given the best part and putting in the best performance, in just the third of his career. Den of Thieves’ only surprises reside in his dexterity, though the twists he’s forced to navigate strain credulity. As for Butler, his string of underwhelming roles continues, with the Geostorm, Gods of Egypt and Olympus Has Fallen star poorly served by his distracting acting choices. Leaving viewers with the feeling they’re watching Gibson or Russell Crowe at their worst isn’t something that anyone, or any movie, should aim for.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Den of Thieves
Director: Christian Gudegast
USA, 2018, 140 mins

Release date: 1 February
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: MA 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay