“This is about a movie about a couple of killers.” Cop Killer vs. Killer Cop. It’s a staple that’s been marketed to us ever since Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971). When crime is just so awful, we need our judge, jury, and executioner inhabiting one righteous cartoon character. Put us on record and we’ll nod along to the weekly sensibility of Law & Order (1990-2010), but if it were our family? Our son? Our daughter? Our wife? We would want Inspector Harry Callahan on the scene…maybe even Judge Dredd (1995). Justice vs. Vengeance is a theme deeply ingrained within the American conscious. How do we uphold our Founding Father ideology and still enjoy the dollar menu at McDonalds? Do we have to accept thugs like Gerard Butler’s Big Nick tagging into the ring on our behalf? Dirty Harry was a right-wing outcry against the softness of the flower power generation, and criminal rights seemingly trumping victims’ rights. Our killer cops these days are just an acknowledgement of acceptable corruption. We don’t expect better because we don’t deserve better.
The gangster cops strapped to their necks in Kevlar and submachine guns as seen in Den of Thieves conjure images of Ferguson, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner. These days it’s pretty hard to pump your fists to the Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) beat, and it’s insane to me that a filmmaker could refuse to recognize these tragedies and deliver an ordinary, wannabe Heat (1995) with Training Day (2001) set-dressing. Here is a film that plays on our cynicism towards law enforcement as a cheap method of installing empathy for the rogue element. These bank robbers are ok dudes because they only shoot men in uniform and never allow their bullets to pierce the bodies of civilians. Give a bad guy a code and suddenly he’s alright in our books.
The film opens with a title card describing Los Angeles as the Bank Robbery capital of the world. Is this true? I don’t know. A quick google search tells me that Fox News no longer recognizes Los Angeles’ title, and that there were only 212 bank robberies in 2013. Phew! They’re fair and balanced, so they gots to know what’s up, right? The point is, in tying Den of Thieves to any kind of reality only goes further into wrangling my nerves. I can still lose myself in some good old-fashioned ultra-violence (I’ll always be first in line for the next SAW atrocity), but this pretend realism oozing from Christian Gudegast’s directorial debut really irritates in 2018.
The Crew terrorizing L.A.’s economy is run by Pablo Schreiber’s Merrimen. He’s a hulking ex-marine who only invites fellow G.I.s into his den. His right-hand man is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who is more charismatic terrifying his daughter’s prom date than he is riding shotgun to their operation. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is the new guy, and he appears to be nothing more than a lowly driver until Butler’s Big Nick puts the screws to his daily life. Den of Thieves permits a few sparse minutes outside of the job, but they’re predictable insights into rough marriages and dead-beat parenthood.
Gerard Butler is a gargantuan terror of a man. It’s doubtful that he’ll ever be as ripped as his 300 (2006) counterpart, but somehow, semi-tough, meatier, brick-shithouse physique of Big Nick bears more horrifying potential. Maybe it’s due to the amount of cliché Den of Thieves operates within. Since he’s established almost immediately in the film as being the type of cop who leaves his cuffs at home, and chambers nothing but hollow point bullets in his gun, we’re constantly waiting for that mass to eventually erupt upon us. Where is his King Kong moment? He never gets one.
The final exchange of gunfire between cop killers and killer cops is satisfyingly staged, and extremely loud. Caught in flight, thanks to a classic L.A. traffic jam, Big Nick’s officers gun down on Merrimen’s goons. Both crews get strapped in commando attire, and psyche themselves up for the inevitably devastating bout of brutality. When bullets erupt, your primordial brain will take over. There’s pleasure in the choreography. But it’s all B.S. We can see civilians fleeing from their vehicles. We can see drivers ducking behind their engine blocks, covering their ears, and praying to god. But only the good and the bad get shot. When Merrimen pulls out a M29 SAW Paratrooper, the very world should crack under its outburst. Cars are splitting in half and not a single sign of collateral damage. It’s just a movie. A movie with delusions of grandeur that prays on the nightly news imagery we may never actually recover from. So, if you’re going to get down in the muck, at least have the decency to be original about it.
Den Of Thieves never has the mind to rise above the films its referencing. Like the crews themselves, it’s faking it to make it. Both Butler and Schreiber have the bravado to pull it off, but the screenplay gives them very little to inhabit. The best it offers is the desire to revisit superior movies.