Den of Thieves even pits Nick against Ray in a sort of impromptu shooting practice contest, with Ray walking languidly away as the winner. But the film’s uncomfortable moments, like Nick putting Donnie in a choke hold in their post-bar encounter, is a signifier of racial America and its destructive politics.
Hollywood has churned a decent amount of gritty heist films, an obsession that draws from a larger and problematic gun culture. It’s easy to see why these films can simultaneously thrill and make you convulse. The violence is never benign. And you find yourself rooting for the bad guys being maddeningly tailed by police cars because, cinematically, if they are caught then the fun stops.
As with its predecessors, the overarching principle in Christian Gudegast new heist thriller Den of Thieves is this: never get caught. The film’s main star Gerard Butler looks bulked up (he consumed raw chicken to get the role’s physique), and he has come a long, long way since playing King Leonidas in 2006’s 300. Butler plays Nick “Big Nick” O’ Brien, a gruffy, jovial, swaggering alcoholic of a detective who I mildly worried would drop the F-bomb every single time but actually didn’t. He heads the Regulators, a niche unit in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and, together, they make a compact, impenetrable team.
But the world in Den of Thieves doesn’t smell of roses. The opening 10 minutes involves a gunbattle and the stealing of a black armoured truck in a robbery operation. The mastermind is Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), who is the leader of the Outlaws, a gang of ex-military men who use their expertise and tactical skills in their new illegitimate work. Everything, from Nick extracting information from (Donnie) O’Shea Jackson Jr. who functions as a driver for the Outlaws to Nick’s rapidly disintegrating marriage, prepares you for the fierce face-off between the Regulators and the Outlaws. The latter’s scheme to rob the Federal Reserve Bank checks all the boxes of a grand heist operation: surveillance, blueprints, timely entry and evacuation. And, of course, guns.
What will the film be without them? Den of Thieves even pits Nick against Ray in a sort of impromptu shooting practice contest, with Ray walking languidly away as the winner. But the film’s uncomfortable moments, like Nick putting Donnie in a choke hold in their post-bar encounter, is a signifier of racial America and its destructive politics. Butler as Nick is charming to watch. He’s terribly flawed, cheating on his wife and then drunkenly texting her about it. An accident, and in some ways that’s more subtle than profound, he begs for the audiences’ sympathy and we are inclined to give it to him. He loves his young daughters, even though he’s dimly aware that divorce looms.
Fathers caring for their daughters is a warm tapestry in Den of Thieves, as we see with Levi (50 Cent), benignly intimidating his daughter’s date so that he can be on his best behaviour with his daughter. Beyond the dark crime world Levi and Nick and the rest occupies, Gudagest tries to flesh them with a relatable human story. At the end of the day, we love the bullets whizzing into cars, the casualties that pile up, and the gritty stamina to stay in the game. Den of Thieves is a screenshot of a modern heist, and Gerard Butler brings it all to life.