Published Jan 18, 2018The history of crime cinema is filled with gritty anti-heroes: from Dirty Harry to John McClane of Die Hard, audiences love a conflicted protagonist who battles both bad guys and his own demons in the pursuit of justice.
Den of Thieves belongs to the same tradition, as L.A. cop Big Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) leads a posse of officers as they attempt to take down an organized crime ring responsible for a string of bank robberies. It's a tried-and-true premise, but Den of Thieves drops the ball by making its characters so repugnant that it's difficult to watch them, let alone root for them.
Big Nick is a terrible cop and worse husband who cracks homophobic jokes about prison rape and at one point tells his male bartender, "I'd fuck you. Kidding!" He spends practically all of his screen time eating with his mouth open, presumably to show just how rough around the edges he is, and one excruciatingly long scene finds him intimidating his estranged wife's date. He also eats food off the ground at a crime scene and noisily drinks milk straight from the carton, proving that he doesn't follow the rules.
On the other side of the conflict are the bank robbers, led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber). His crew includes the compelling but underdeveloped Donnie (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Levi (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson — who, despite his top billing, is an unnecessary peripheral character). In the film's first scene, they use machine guns to mow people down at a donut shop stick-up, so we're not rooting for them either. The film's only women are harassed wives and objectified sex workers, meaning that Den of Thieves fails the Bechdel test in spectacular fashion.
The complete lack of likeable characters is a problem for a heist movie — in this struggle between violent criminals and corrupt cops, we don't particularly care who wins. In light of this shortcoming, it's a pleasant surprise that director Christian Gudegast effectively builds up tension during the climactic heist, which turns out to have a more clever payoff than expected. Adding the mood, composer Cliff Martinez (a former Red Hot Chili Pepper) channels the eerie synth ambience that made his Drive score so iconic.
With fewer machine guns and less off-putting characters, this could have been a cerebral battle of wits rather than just another shoot-em-up. As it is, Den of Thieves is just too bone-headed to deliver the twists it attempts.