Sometimes a movie comes along that you just can’t classify. Questions of quality can quickly become complicated. Is a movie a good-bad movie? How about a bad-good movie? The only hope is that it avoids bad-bad. The supposedly gritty crime drama Den of Thieves hits theaters this week. While the film is desperately trying to tick some action movie boxes, they quickly find themselves in good-bad comedy territory.
Den of Thieves follows dual(ish) stories as a group of robbers led by “Merrimen” (Pablo Schreiber) plot to knock over the main building of the Los Angeles Federal Reserve. However, nothing is quite as easy as they hope as they are pursued by a team of rogue cops, led by “Big Nick” (Gerard Butler). Twists ensure, nothing goes quiet as planned, as there’s plenty of mind-numbing action to go around.
The film comes from yet another first time male director as Christian Gudegast directs his own script. Gudegast is best known to audience for his writing, having penned the scripts for London Has Fallen and A Man Apart.
Den of Thieves is at its strongest when it’s pulling no punches what-so-ever. This is a mind-numbing action film, and this is how it performs best. Gudegast demonstrates a definite strength for action sequences. Den of Thieves opens and ends with large scale action scenes. They are shot at a breakneck pace, and the use of camera work and sound effects serve to effectively heighten the tension. In fact, while taking notes for this piece, I had to consciously pull myself back out of the film to ensure I was reviewing critically. They play well and are incredibly cinematic.
However, the strength of the action sequences pulls a major script flaw into focus. The pacing. The action sequences are incredibly well shot, but there’s not enough of them to keep the narrative going. The script is not strong enough.
Den of Thieves is packed with characters on both sides. However, aside from the leaders of the respective groups and the presence of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, none of them inspire much emotional investment. In fact, they are not even developed enough to play like action movie stereotypes. You’ve got the blonde cop and the muscular dark haired robber. You forget these characters as soon as they step off screen.
The narrative is an interesting one as the men go through the elaborate cat and mouse game surrounding the impending robbery. However, there are holes to the script, temporal jumps worthy of The Snowman and incredibly strange lines of dialogue. It’s difficult to determine if some of these moments are intentional (it had this screening audience laughing), or if it is completely unintentional. A particular favourite line comes early in the film as one of the robbers draws his weapon during the heat of a robbery, “Armor piercing weapons are chambered in this firearm!”. Later in the film, Nick arrives on a crime scene and looks around to his co-workers, “Good morning fellow officers”. These are just a few particular gems. Sitting in the theater, the audience definitely found the film hysterically funny in places. If unintentionally funny is your cup of tea, definitely check this one out.
Turning to the question of gender and sexuality, the film utterly fails at any attempt to pass the Bechdel Test (it even doesn’t try…). Women in this film play two roles: wives and whores. Not even prostitutes… whores. Even the Fast and the Furious series manages to work women into their gangs.
The only woman with a real speaking role is Dawn Oliveri, in the role of Debbie, Nick’s long suffering wife. As we’re introduced to her, she’s finally reaching the end of a long and frayed rope. Not only does the film not bother to truly introduce or develop her outside of her role as wife or mother, but the narrative portrays her as the villain. She’s the crazy witch of an ex-wife who’s taking Nick’s children away from him. However, we learn early on that the alcoholic, toxicly masculine Nick is cheating on his wife. His perspective is the only one which seems to matter in the narrative. The plot point seems like one meant to humanize the rough character, but in its treatment of Debbie, fails at its purpose
Watching the film, there’s a formatting issue which seems off almost immediately. The film chooses the most liberal, overkill use of subtitles. We learn where we are through the location cards… states… counties… then character names. To make matters worse, the information is given in the same font and in the same place. It’s confusing, convoluted and a strange idea… and then the captions suddenly switch places. Halfway through the movie, they move to the other side of the screen. Did the creative team miss something? What is the purpose?
Den of Thieves is a challenging review. The film skirts a line of unintentional hilarity. Was it supposed to be a comedy? Not if you look at the film’s marketing. Was it an entertaining viewing? Certainly, it is an absolute blast. However, know your expectations and know what you’re getting. If you’re looking for a gritty and intense crime drama, give this one a miss.
Den of Thieves opens in theaters this week.