Gerard Butler and 50 Cent in a film by the screenwriter of London Has Fallen might sound like a match made in straight-to-DVD heaven, but there’s more going on in Den Of Thieves than guns and machismo. Well, there’s still an awful lot of guns and machismo, but writer-director Christian Gudegast’s feature debut is more inspired by the cool thriller trappings of Michael Mann’s Heat than the ultra-violent London Has Fallen.
In fact, Den Of Thieves seems so heavily inspired by Michael Mann in its opening third that it initially looks like Heat with the serial numbers filed off. An elite gang of robbers assaults a security van, and after a gun-blazing exchange, evade capture by the police. Enter Gerard Butler’s LA sheriff Big Nick, a four-square monster of a man with a beard and tattoos; he becomes bent on capturing the gang of hoodlums, led by a similarly hulking Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), and isn’t afraid to break a few rules to bring him to book.
Like Heat, Den Of Thieves divides its story between the movements of the cops and robbers. Big Nick’s in the midst of breaking up with his wife, while his working hours are largely spent drinking or menacing potential snitches – including bartender and ex car thief Donnie, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr, star of Straight Outta Compton. Across town, meanwhile, Merrimen and his crew (among them 50 Cent, who doesn’t say much) are planning their biggest heist yet: the theft of millions of dollars from the LA branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.
Much of the drama ranges from the cliched (alcoholic cops with wife problems) to the straight-up unbelievable (a scene where 50 Cent threatens his daughter’s boyfriend on prom night), but Gudegast keeps things moving, and Butler’s charismatic enough in another of his gruff, tough-guy roles. Gudegast likes his prowling aerial shots of Los Angeles by night (all cut to an electronic, Tangerine Dream-like score by Cliff Martinez), and he ably captures the grubby character of a city whose various suburbs and industrial areas seem too stretch to the horizon.
As a post-Mann thriller, Den Of Thieves is more workmanlike in its direction than, say, Triple 9, John Hillcoat’s hugely underrated heist flick that was batty enough to cast Kate Winslet as a Russian crime boss. Nevertheless, Gudegast has an eye for the small details of gangland activity, and Merriman’s big final heist is fascinating in its tense staging and outlandish complexity.
Den Of Thieves is also a reminder of how tastes have changed since 1995, the year Heat came out. Where this film might have been a much higher profile release, with a bigger budget and a marketing campaign to match, Den Of Thieves has to make do with a fairly low-key launch in the graveyard days of February. Gudegast is also required to stage his shoot-outs under bridges or in abandoned car parks rather than the busy LA streets or airport runways of Michael Mann’s classic. Even with its flaws, it’s easy to imagine Den Of Thieves being a bigger deal had it been released a decade or two ago (which, funnily enough, is roughly when the script was written; Gudegast’s had his movie in development since at least 2003).
With some decent performances, particularly from O’Shea Jackson Jr, Den Of Thieves is an unexpectedly solid heist thriller. Butler puts every sinew into Big Nick, a cowboy strutting through his own urban western, but he’s roundly upstaged by the plot itself; as precise as a Swiss watch, the heist will keep you gripped to the very end.
Den Of Thieves is out in UK cinemas now.