Den of Thieves has all the makings of a fun cops and robbers, cat and mouse heist film. A scrappy bunch of ne’er do wells with an elaborate plot to jack the United States Federal Reserve. The bunch of hard working dicks dedicated to tracking them down. Sure it might end on a totally bone-headed twist that is completely undeserved but aside from that the bones are functional.
Unfortunately what is hanging off the bones seems to be all of writer/director Christian Gudegast’s flaming id and worst instincts. What could be a charming flick he instead decides to fill itself with the shittiest fucking irredeemable characters on screen so far this year. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to find them cool, or badass, or renegade. I think you’re, as an audience, supposed to be torn between rooting for each side as they rumble their way through. It didn’t achieve it. I just wanted all of the people on screen to die.
Let’s start at the beginning. There are no women in this feature. Aside from one, Dawn Olivieri plays the abused wife of Gerard Butler’s Detective Inspector. She appears in an early scene where he abuses her and she leaves him, later he returns to sign the divorce papers and abuses her some more. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to continue to respect this man afterwards as he jokes with his colleagues about having his freedom. It is impossible to. All other women depicted are there to be either leered or laughed at, none of them get any lines.
Gerard Butler is the lead detective type, the sorta guy who they made fun of in that Brooklyn Nine Nine episode. Reprobate, fuck-up, alcoholic whose ill-defined passion keeps him from falling into criminality. So basically me, but then I don’t try to be a cop. Also, my passion is art and his is torturing and abusing people and getting away with it because of his position. The rest of the cops are fairly anonymous but they are united in their toxic masculinity.
Our lead on the crims side is their rookie driver. He’s the only one here who manages to hold even a drop of my empathy throughout. O’Shea Jackson Jr. gives what he can to a part that’s wide eyed and credulous, but mainly it’s because everyone beating on him throughout the whole joint. The dude gets roughed up by the cops who try to make him turn informant, then the dude gets roughed up by his crew who think that he actually did. While the question of whose side is he on feels like it could be a compelling one; we just don’t give a shit.
Because who cares about these awful people. The film opens on a gunfight and you can hear the direction in the editing room. ‘The guns need to be LOUD.’ They’re put right up in the mix, what feels like it should be a tense an exciting situation just comes across unpleasant. Which is what the whole joint feels like. Don’t want to spend time with these shitty men. Don’t want their garbage version of masculinity shitting up movie screens. Don’t want some undercooked wannabe Michael Mann blundering their way through it.
You can feel the fingerprints right the way down. Gudegast shoots LA like a dream, his cameras point way down intersections and the streetlamps and headlights overexpose. He dives into the back alleys and the underground, unseen parts of the city but doesn’t know what to do with them. These robbers have a military past which is noted but not explored, like the rest of their motivation.
Just seems enough here that it be elemental, the pigs and their prey. Now seems like it would be good time to explore the damage that shitty police officers can do. We see enough of that in the real world. How about the situations that drive the underprivileged to crime? No, we have a surface level look at all these things. It’s enough for it to look basic and threadbare and shitty, enough for these people to be in crappy apartments and shop at a crappy off-licence. We don’t need to properly consider these lives.
In fact the worst, and by far most superfluous episodes, in the film is when they try give us a glimpse into these fools’ personal lives. There’s a separate one where they go to 50 Cent’s house to browbeat his daughter’s date. There’s an extended section of O’Shea Jackson waiting bar, I suppose we can be thankful that it at least ain’t a strip club, but nope, the strip club scene comes later. Maybe these distractions would be appreciated in a film with charm but really it just more crap in a film that don’t gotta be two hours twenty.
I have my own theory about why we like heist movies as a culture. It ain’t about getting rich. We all want money, but so many of these films end up with the money sacrificed or lost that it ain’t really about that. It’s about the meaninglessness of money. The moments when we can believe that the controlling factor in all our lives is vanished. A heist represents the ultimate abstraction between labour and capital.
It is money that is worked for twice while creating no additional value. At the same time it represents an activation of the capital that was not being put to use. It’s also a critique of the flimsiness of the concept of ownership. A good heist doesn’t just enrich yourself, it also exposes the fundamental flaws of a capitalist society. I can’t forgive this movie because once you get past the hour and a half or trash, and into the heist it’s fucking good. You still gotta put up with the characters but they’re mostly keeping their mouths shut and you can enjoy the film.
That’s all I ever wanna do, I can’t understand the compulsion to turn your film into this.
Den of Thieves is currently screening in UK cinemas.