Not quite a rip-off of the 1995 LA crime saga Heat, but, there’s definitely two key instances in Den of Thieves where the film emulates memorable sequences from Michael Mann’s masterpiece. Such as the armored truck robbery in the film’s opening scene or the climactic shootout with automatic assault rifles on the streets of LA in broad daylight. Den of Thieves attempts to be a realistic crime story about the leading unit of the LA County Sherrif’s department attempting to takedown a bank robbery team plotting to raid the Federal Reserve Bank.
Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) is a depraved and adulterating cop leading the elite crew of LASD to take down the thieves led by Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) and Enson (50 Cent). Making his feature-length directorial debut, screenwriter Christian Gudegast (A Man Apart, London Has Fallen) uses many lines of dialogue in his script that are derived from pop-culture, which is always refreshing to hear. The glitch here is the improbability to convince the audience that these varying characters from both sides of the law are playing on the same terms and phrases. During a crime scene investigation, where multiple police officers lay dead on the asphalt, FBI Agent Lobbin’ Bob (Jordan Bridges) gives us, as well as Flanagan, a not-so-funny explanation of the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian. Does this type of dialogue really belong in an R-rated crime film? Comedic banter between an edgy LASD and FBI agent amid a bloody crime scene is unlikely and reminds us that we’re in fact, watching a movie. Even if this type of behavior does occur on a crime scene between law enforcement, it would behoove one to think that by erasing all the humor, it would better serve the gritty mood Den of Thieves attempted to convey.
In the beginning of the film, with an overhead shot of the greater LA area, were educated on the statistics of bank robberies in Los Angeles per year, day and hour. Perhaps, this technique was taken from a page right out of George P. Cosmatos’ book, from his 1986 Sylvester Stallone LA crime film Cobra where we’re given similar statistics in the films very opening scene, except with Stallone’s voice over, as opposed to a superimposed title card in Den of Thieves, which was used heavily throughout the entire film. These title cards unnecessarily remind us of which LA neighborhood we’re in by blasting the name of the town on screen, distracting us from the story. Maybe there’s a more creative way to tell us which area we’re in by showing an iconic site or having the neighborhood street sign in the background for the viewer to notice themselves. Filmmaking is a difficult endeavor, but, the story can carry on without reminding the audience where they are in every sequence.
Throughout the entire film, I constantly asked myself, am I rooting for the supposed hero in Nick Flanagan? We learn about his personal life deep into the first act after we hear him admit to Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) in an interrogation scene in a hotel suite swarming with LASD surrounded by prostitutes and liquor, that Flanagan is “the real bad guy.” Somehow, were supposed to pity Flanagan when his wife decides to leave him and takes their two daughters with her when he shows up to their home at the crack of dawn wreaking of liquor from having been around hookers all night, to which we learn from his soon to be ex-wife that, Flanagan, the superior lawman that he’s supposed to be, inadvertently sent the wrong text message to his wife that morning, revealing that he’s cheating on her with another woman. Adultery is real and there’s no question about the validity of this character trait for Flanagan. But, is he a hero?
One of the thieves, who gets ample screen time is Enson. There is an amusing yet unwarranted scene in the film where Enson’s daughter awaits her date to her high school prom. This scene shows the contradiction that exists in the theme of this film regarding the differentiation between good vs bad. First, we’re given the impression that this criminal in Enson, is a genuine family man with a wife and a beautiful daughter that, he’s incredibly protective over, by bullying her prom date in the garage and threatening to paralyze him if he mistreats her. In Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II, Marcus (Martin Lawrence) was a good cop, so it was necessary for the audience, as well as supporting of comedic element of that movie, to see him be protective over his daughter while her date gets punked at the front door. In Den of Thieves, Enson is a supporting character and one of the bad guys. It appears that it’s important for us to see he his relationship with his daughter and his values in protecting her. If he really cared about his daughter, would he be robbing banks? Maybe he doesn’t have a choice. This love and care glorifies his character and makes him appear to be a better person than Nick Flanagan, our supposed ‘hero’; the foul mouth adulterer of a Sheriff who’s going after the ‘bad’ guys. Who’s really the bad guy here? We know it’s the bank robbers, but, the film is aware that it’s making it’s supposed ‘heroes’ the antiheroes when they’re chasing down bad guys with more heart than themselves.
Nick Flanagan continues to degrade women after his wife leaves him, with pathetic lines of dialogue like “We only come here for the ass” as well as portray his hypocrisy to the audience. What’s even worse is he says this line to the thieves, where he’s intruded their family dinner at a restaurant, after he showed us his tears, from losing his wife and kids, by weeping in his car. We can’t feel sorry for such a ‘hero’ when he later intrudes his sister-in-law’s house, to sign the divorce papers he was served, in front of his ex-wife, followed by putting his hands on her date, in a bullying fashion, only to be touched by his sister-in-law’s husband, when he askes Flanagan to leave, to which Flanagan shouts, ‘Don’t fucking touch me.’ If this is an intentional choice of character traits, then, he is conveying to us that the Sheriff who wants to get the bad guy is, really a bad guy himself. Perhaps, this is all very true in the real lives of cops and criminals, but, for the sake of story and cinema, the film has an absent hero and the audience is left wondering who the hell to root for when everyone on screen is immoral and debauched. Den of Thieves is about bad guys on the right side of the law, versus underground bad guys with heart.
Flanagan’s character is villainous and deserves no cheer. Instead, perhaps, it’s best to root for his wife to take away his kids and save their future while we’re left with Flanagan having no character arc and no growth throughout the movie. He promises his daughter that he’ll come home, in a strange scene where he tracks her down at her elementary school, having a conversation with her on the other side of the fence. Flanagan doesn’t make the necessary changes in the film to pursue his supposed goal of getting his family back and the film ends with us wondering if he ever did. What is the purpose of introducing this storyline when the supposed protagonist never pursues his goal or even deserves the reward of obtaining his goal, when he’s still stuck in his negative identity in the aftermath of the film? There’s no purpose because this is not that movie. This movie is all blood and thunder. Den of Thieves had monetary success globally and has a sequel in-development. Hopefully, these questions will be answered in part two.
There are touching moments in the musical score by Cliff Martinez (Drive, Traffic) that give the film a melancholic vibe, most notably in a scene where Flanagan stands on what looks like Long Beach or Seal Beach at dawn, smoking a cigarette in reflection and contemplation. This scene was reminiscent of a scene in his screenplay A Man Apart. I’d be more curious to see more of this self-reflection and introspection of Flanagan’s character and seeing him overcome his obstacles.
Was the underlying theme in Den of Thieves conveying that criminals have more heart than cops and it’s the police who are corrupt? If so, I completely disagree. The film attempted to convey this in a clever twist of the climactic aftermath which will go unsaid to prevent spoilers. One wonders whether these were errors in the script or an underlying message that the good guys are the bad guys and the bad guys are good. Or maybe everyone is bad. Who is the hero of this film? Are they to suggest that everyone is corrupt?
Den of Thieves can’t hold a candle to Heat though it’s obvious it was inspired by it. At least in Michael Mann’s masterpiece, we feel concerned about Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro). Despite his engagement in heists and bank robberies, McCauley was a man of dignity who genuinely fell in love with a woman and showed us his heart. He didn’t believe in reckless criminality and unnecessary punishment. He wanted to move on with his life. We had sympathy for his backstory and almost wished he got away. We couldn’t care less if his counterpart Pablo Schreiber in Den of Thieves gets away with anything. Though Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) from Heat was somewhat of a contaminated LAPD cop with his own tribulations; on the verge of a third divorce and though unrevealed, had a cocaine addiction while also coping with the near-death drug overdose of his stepdaughter. Lt. Vincent Hanna’s cocaine use was cut from the film by Michael Mann because Mann knew it would attract too much attention to the audience, something Den of Thieves neglected to do in Gerard Butler’s character of Nick Flanagan.