At 140 minutes long, while you’re watching Den Of Thieves there will have been three bank robberies in Los Angeles. That’s one every 48 minutes.
It genuinely doesn’t feel overlong though, and I say that as someone who firmly believes that all Gerard Butler films over two hours should have pelvic floor exercises on the posters for the mums in the audience.
Its full title should really be Robbing Hood: Den Of Thieves, what with its “we are the bad guys” Sheriff Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler), and opposite number in the heist crew Ray (and I’m not making this up) Merrimen.
The plot is basic in outline but complex in execution. And even by the end I wasn’t sure why certain events had taken place; if I had missed something, or the scriptwriters had.
There’s a hold up in a car park early one morning. Several guards and a cop are dead, but the thieves only get away with an empty cash delivery truck. Big Nick sets out his stall immediately on arrival there: swearing constantly, mocking Uptight FBI Guy, and chucking a half-eaten donut into the chalked-up crime scene. A rule breaker and would-be iconoclast (“we just shoot you – it’s less paperwork”), it’s soon clear he doesn’t know when to call a halt in his personal or work life.
The LA County Sheriff’s department has a slate of unsolved heists stretching back to the early 00s, all showing unusual levels of finesse, and all coinciding with Ray Merrimen (a nuanced Pablo Schreiber) not being in prison. Bring down his crew and all those crimes should be solved.
Big Nick himself – a man who survives rather than thrives on a diet of strippers, beer, cigarettes, and donuts – only really comes alive when he’s working in his office, planning and plotting and working out details. Just like Merrimen in his lock-up garage, though while he is working forwards, Nick is forced to work in reverse.
They’re certainly more similar than they are distant: “where did it go wrong” ponders Nick as he looks at a black and white photograph of Merrimen serving in the Forces, the marine’s face a study in commitment. And they’re both men who only really blossom when they’re working on each side of the case. But Merriman is coolly focussed where O’Brien is a loose cannon. And focus too much on one person and you take your eye off the ball.
Nick and his team see everyone as the enemy, at one point rather brilliantly having a full-on fight with the LAPD in front of a bank while a hold-up with several hostages goes on inside.
The question is, whose hubris will be their undoing – Big Nick and Major Crimes, or Merrimen and his merry men (look, they started it with the puns).
For Ray Merrimen the next prize is the big one: breaching the unbreachable security systems of Los Angeles Federal Reserve Bank. Harder to get into than Maid Marian’s medieval chastity belt (I’d better stop with that analogy, or my feminist ID card will be taken off me), it has $500-800 billion in situ at any one time.
The serial numbers are recorded, but once old notes are earmarked for destruction the numbers are deleted from the Reserve database; leaving a window for the theft of 30 million untraceable dollars. More than enough for new bows and arrows all round, and perhaps a jaunty hat with a feather in it for Merrimen.
Nick is blatant, combining surveillance with trolling on an epic scale (and sometimes not even bothering with the surveillance). He even turns up at a shooting facility to both check out his opponent’s hit-rate and (of course) to show off.
I’ll admit that with only a paper-thin sliver of morality separating the bad guys (the heist crew) from the really bad guys (the County Sheriff’s department), I wasn’t really that bothered who would actually win.
And despite both men ostensibly heading up close-knit teams, apart from heist member Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr), and Nick’s colleague Gus (Mo McRae), none of the others are particularly memorable (and could be interchangeable between teams, though presumably that’s the point).
The final traffic-jam gun battle, starting off between two rows of stationary cars as machine gun fire peppers the air and bulked up, bullet-proofed giants dodge round vehicles, is numbing but exciting, even if I couldn’t remember who was who. But it soon takes an even more bleakly nihilistic turn, as two men who by now seem to need each other for some kind of validation, fight on.
Far too self-aware to allow himself to delve too deep into his own psyche, Big Nick is enough of a misbehaving mess to be believable, without collapsing into caricature. Butler takes him as deep as he can go, and he’s rather affecting as someone who can’t be a family man so (because?) he’s built a whole other family around him at work.
His distress over his entirely self-created marriage break-up is believable, even if Nick doesn’t ever allow himself the space to make changes rather than simply empty promises. It’s frustrating though that his wife and children soon disappear from the narrative, once she discovers his infidelity (one of them anyway).
I’m no bank heist movie aficionado, though I’m guessing that little in Den Of Thieves is new. And the two-sides-of-the-same-coin foes, the impossible to rob building, the twists and double crossings and flashbacks, are familiar tropes from many genres. But the film is (despite the convolutions) rather straightforward in its aims, and acquits itself admirably within those confines.
One of those movies that is in many ways breathtakingly silly whilst also maintaining an impressively serious level of self-belief, Den of Thieves is a disarmingly entertaining ride. It also manages to balance frantic fire power with thoughtful planning, and brawn with brain, with a dollop of emotion thrown into the mix.
And O’Brien’s appallingly unhealthily lifestyle (I most wanted to make Big Nick a chicken salad sandwich and give him a bath) should make the most vitamin-averse viewer feel virtuous.
*** A Den Of Thieves sequel has been announced – find out more ***
Watch The Den Of Thieves second trailer here: