Gerard Butler has a way of making even the most terrible film somehow enjoyable, and Den of Thieves is no exception. The problem in most of his choices for roles typically falls on either the directors or even the writers. In the right film, you could possibly see Butler chewing the scenery much like Mel Gibson in his prime, but for some reason, he keeps picking his films wrong. Den of Thieves proves Butler is extremely gifted in portraying strong characters, but ultimately the film itself is too problematic for any actor to save.
The film centers around two storylines slowly colliding into one. The first revolves around Big Nick — played by Gerard Butler– who works for a very unconventional set of officers in the major crimes unit division. His team as Big Nick states, “are the real bad guys.” The ones who criminals actually have to fear, because they operate on their own accord. Big Nick has been assigned to take down a group of thieves who accidentally killed a cop. Which brings us to the second storyline involving a major group of thieves, run by a very smart leader known as Merrimen –played by Pablo Schreiber. The team consists of some great casting selects such as O’ Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube’s son), 50 Cent, Evan Jones (who most people remember as Cheddar Bob from 8 Mile), and Cooper Andrews (The Walking Dead).
The one thing the film gets right is casting. All the performers in this movie deliver exactly the way they should. Pablo Schreiber as Merrimen – who is facing-off against Butler throughout the film – is an actor who feels like he is about to accomplish big things. Each scene he is given requires him to do a lot, and he carries the weight quite well. O’Shea Jackson Jr. also brings another great performance and much like his father, he definitely shows a ton of potential. Gerard Butler did as much as can be expected for the material that was written for him. At this point, Butler knows what he is good at, and knows what movie he is in.
The problem though is the story is overly long and the character choices often feel really silly. The film has an insane runtime of 2 and a 1/2 hours, and there’s no reason for it to be this long. Many sequences and subplots could’ve been trimmed to get it down for a merciful 2-hour runtime, but they chose not to do this. One subplot involving Big Nick’s wife and daughter could’ve been trimmed and I’m not sure the film would’ve felt any different. I understand the scenes were placed here to give Nick more dimension but it could’ve been shorter.
In regards to the silliness of characters, some choices in the writing just did not make sense. One scene, in particular, felt like it was trying to duplicate the tension from a scene in Sicario, without understanding why the scene worked. SPOILERS FOR SICARIO AND DEN OF THIEVES AHEAD. In Sicario, a sequence takes place where the main character is trying to cross the Mexican border back into the U.S. but a group of cartel soldiers waits among the traffic to ambush her and the FBI. The FBI does not instigate until they have to because they do not want to hurt civilians. Only when the bad guys instigate do they exit the car and point weapons to disarm the situation. In Den of Thieves, a similar situation transpires, but Gerard Butler and his officers instigate a shootout right in the middle of a traffic jam, putting many lives at risk. The sequence is actually well-shot and has all the right ingredients for an action sequence, except I felt pulled out of the movie because none of it seemed plausible. SPOILERS END.
Which brings me back to my original point, it’s hard to be engaged with these characters and sequences when none of it feels grounded. I can believe Gerard Butler has a team of misfit cops who operate by their own rules, but some of his choices would have real-world consequences. It would’ve played better if he had Internal Affairs holding him under surveillance throughout the film, or something similar giving his methods accountability. Sadly, because of this, it felt like rushed writing, and scenes that were just trying to recreate feelings of watching The Town or Heat without the emotional impact.
Den of Thieves does have moments that are nail-biting and tense, and at one point you will absolutely be holding your breath. Personally, I just wish this movie had more of an emotional punch. It wants so desperately to be something like The Town but completely misunderstands why that movie was so great.