DEN OF THIEVES is a bank heist action thriller complete with shoot-out, car chase and suspenseful robbery execution, the kind that was popular in the 70’s but is seldom seen on the screen these days. It is written and directed by German American Christian Gudegast, whose German roots can only be noticed at the end of the film when Gerard Butler curses: “F***ing Fraulein!”
DEN OF THIEVES stands out from the typical bank heist caper as it shows two sides of the coin – the Los Angeles Sheriff Department’s elite unit and the robbery crew, with about equals screen time divided between the two. The former is led by ‘Big Nick’ (Gerard Butler) while the latter by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber). But Merrimen is sure no Robin Hood.
Whose side will the audience take? When the film starts and the heist planning gets under way and then the execution, it is human nature to root for the robbers, to want them to succeed – especially when the voiceover explains how impossible a heist in L.A. is. But Gudegast also has Nick utter the words to one of his suspects: “We are the bad guys. We don’t arrest criminals. We kill them and do the paperwork after.”
Gudegast’s film is by no means perfect but it has it pleasures. In fact, it is really easy to pick out what is wrong with the film and to dismiss it as total rubbish. But on the positive side, Gudegast creates a very credible nitty-gritty atmosphere where life seldom, if ever turns out right. At times, it feels like one is dunked in porn culture, from the strip joints, cheap restaurants and other shady stores (3 suits for $100) that the characters frequent. But the climax leaves much to be improved. The shoot out scene on the highway with cars back to back is hardly realistic when one cannot see any bystanders or drivers in the stalled vehicles. The cops keep shouting to the drivers, stay down, stay down, but when an overhead shot pans the tops of the cars, no person can be seen unless they have really stayed down perfectly low horizontally. The twists in the plot (not to be revealed in this review) is also explained sloppily in flashback. There is a clumsy scene set in a London pub, where Donny suddenly spawns a British accent. The film runs too long at 2 and a quarter hours. Though one could com pain on the slow segments, these segments actually provide a good breather for the audience to catch their breathe and evaluate the past proceedings. The insertion of Nick’s family problems is also clumsily insetted, just to provide sympathy for the protagonist.
Butler is ok in his DIRTY HARRY role but it is O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Donnie who steals the show.
The first third of Gudegat’s film works better than the other two thirds with the climax a complete letdown. But the first third is actually pretty good and an effective and absorbing bank heist planning. The conclusion is that the flawed film achieves its promised good nitty-gritty atmosphere with some suspenseful moments.