Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Christian Gudegast
Stars: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson jr, 50 Cent, Dawn Olivieri, Maurice Compte, Brian Van Horn, Evan Jones, Mo McRae, Eric Braeden, Jordan Bridges, Cooper Andrews.
The DNA of Michael Mann’s classic 1995 heist thriller Heat runs through the structure and plotting of this gritty, violent, contemporary urban crime drama.
Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the US, with a bank robbery committed on average every 48 minutes every day. The gang of highly organised and efficient robbers here is led by Merriman (Pablo Schreiber, from tv series American Gods, etc), a former special ops soldier who uses his training and skills to plan his daring heists. His latest audacious scheme is to rob the LA Federal Reserve Bank, a seemingly impossible task. Every day the bank destroys millions of dollars-worth of old bank notes. With some insider help, Merriman has constructed an elaborate scheme to bypass the high-tech security systems, the CCTVs that monitor everything, the protocols and the inbuilt redundancies that protect the bank to steal a fortune. The details of the planning and the precise execution of the robbery bring a frisson of tension to the film.
On his trail though is “big Nick” O’Brien (a beefed up and typically Gerard Butler), the head of the crack LA County Sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit. He is a tough and uncompromising cop with a take no prisoners attitude and is prone to throwing away the rule book when it comes to pursuing crooks. His fellow squad members are a similarly dishevelled looking bunch with a similar attitude. They lean on Donnie (O’Shea Jackson jr), a former car thief now working as a bar tender and occasional driver for Merriman, for information on Merriman’s plans.
These two hard units are on a collision course that will result in a running gun battle on a crowded LA freeway. There is also a tense cat and mouse game between O’Brien and Merriman as the two circle around one another, which will remind audiences of the similar dynamic that played out between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. The film also has a few similarities to John Hillcoat’s gripping heist thriller Triple 9.
Den Of Thieves marks the directorial debut for writer Christian Gudegast (who wrote the action thrillers A Man Apart and London Has Fallen, etc) and is a generic but solid and surprisingly entertaining drama. His direction is suitably muscular and visceral, and there are a couple of well-staged kinetic action sequences here that have been superbly shot by cinematographer Terry Stacey and deftly edited by Clint Eastwood’s regular editor Joel Cox along with David Cox and Nathan Godley. Stacey also gives us lots of aerial shot of Los Angeles by night and he captures the seedy look of the suburbs and industrial wastelands.
There is a subplot involving O’Brien’s estranged wife Debbie (played by Dawn Olivieri) that could easily have been excised completely, cutting 20 minutes from the overly generous 140-minute running time without detracting from the drama or the central story line.
Most of the characters here are unlikeable. Butler is perfectly cast here as the deeply flawed anti-hero, and he brings plenty of his usual surly attitude and swagger to the role. Schreiber, who is a half-cousin of actor Live Schreiber, imbues his Merriman with plenty of cunning and a quietly menacing air. Jackson jr (the son of rapper Ice Cube) continues his solid work in Straight Outta Compton and the recent Ingrid Goes West with another good performance here as Donnie, a bartender who also works as a driver for Merriman’s crew, who is the only sympathetic character. Rapper 50 Cent is also a menacing presence as Levoux, Merriman’s second in command. The rest of the cast are largely unknown, but they bring plenty of credibility and a healthy dose of testosterone and machismo to the material.
And stick around for the end credits as there is a final reveal that even hardened fans of the genre won’t see coming.