Film Review: Den of Thieves (USA, 2018) is a competent homage to Michael Mann’s epic heist saga Heat

Heist films are a dime-a-dozen these days. They’re the ones that fit the “put people on a mission” genre, starring a well known ensemble cast, who have been given an exciting plot where cast chemistry, filmmaking chops and fun storytelling mix together to make an entertaining night out for cinemagoers.

If you think of the best of the genre, Ocean’s Eleven, The Sting and Dog Day Afternoon immediately come to mind. Or you might think of enjoyably off-kilter entries like Inception, Bad Genius or Logan Lucky. But the biggest and most acclaimed heist film entry is Michael Mann‘s epic saga, Heat. With its distinct characters, propulsive action scenes, suffocating suspense, strong thematic hold and uncommon narrative depth, Heat is not only considered as one Mann’s best films, but one of the best heist films ever.

Since then, we have other films that try to ape its success. One film has come close (though not intentionally) is Ben Affleck‘s The Town. Despite having been adapted from known source material, the final product is so reminiscent of Heat, that it cannot have been just a coincidence.

So now we have Den of Thieves, which marks the directorial debut of Christian Gudegast, the co-writer of London Has Fallen. Starring leading animal [sic], Gerard Butler and backed up with an ensemble cast including Pablo Schneider and O’Shea Jackson Jr., it looks to be another heist film following the footsteps of Michael Mann‘s Heat. But will the film succeed on its own terms?

Gerard Butler plays Nick O’Brien, the leader of the Regulators, an elite unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He is a hard drinker which, combined with his work, makes him ever more distant with his wife (Dawn Oliveri) and children.

Pablo Schneider plays Ray Merrimen, the leader of the Outlaws, a gang of ex-military men who use their expertise and tactical skills to evade the law. He is recently paroled out of prison and like all thieves do, they plan their next heist as soon as they step out of the prison grounds. O’Brien, Merrimen and their crews soon find themselves at odds with each as the criminals hatch an elaborate plan for a seemingly impossible heist: to rob the Federal Reserve Bank.

From the moment the film starts, it becomes obvious to the point of being blatant that Den of Thieves is a beat-for-beat version to Michael Mann’s Heat. Like the past film, it’s shot in L.A, has an action scene involving an armored car and, of course, it involves an impossible heist. The sound design and music are eerily similar, you would think that this film is more like a mockubuster version of Heat, but I think it comes off as a homage.

The reason I use the word “homage” instead of terms like “recycling”, “rip-off” or “mockubuster” is because homages do not make one cringe. And thankfully, Den of Thieves never does that, aside from one major point in the film, which funnily enough is a moment that isn’t anything like in Heat.

The action scenes are well-done, making use of its geography well, and the heist itself is done competently enough that it does provide some thrills and tension, never coming off as a cash-grab for aping better heist films. The score by Cliff Martinez certainly gives the film some much-needed punch, too.

The acting from its ensemble cast are all fine with what they have got, with a surprisingly magnetic performance from Gerard Butler. Despite doing all the grunting, roaring and yelling that we expect from him, it looks like he finally found a character that suits his acting range, with the flawed creature of a man, Nick O’Brien. At one point in the film, he eats a donut that he picks up from the ground of a crime scene, stained with blood. That sums up the character perfectly and Butler does well.

Pablo Schneider isn’t given anything that is near the level that Butler has (he is the star/producer, after all), but he does provide a nice complement to Butler’s feral demeanor. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is fine, as he shows a compelling sense of vulnerability to the part while the rest of the cast including Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (who is surprisingly charismatic here) and Dawn Oliveri do what they can with their small parts.

So far, so…fine. Den of Thieves could’ve easily have been a three star film with its filmmaking competency, but there are flaws which bring it down. One is the overlong running time. While it does spend it well with scenes involving the planning, there are too many extraneous scenes that serve very little purpose to the story i.e. a comedic scene involving the family of 50 Cent’s character, the relationship drama between Butler and Oliveri and so on.

But the biggest problem is the ending, which involves one of the stupidest twists that I have seen in a long time. It’s not so much the twist itself that is stupid, but the handling of it all is just awful. It adds nothing to the film; it doesn’t contextualise anything that came before it and it makes one of the actors look really bad.

Overall, Den of Thieves is a entertaining, if rocky entry in the heist genre, even if it is an homage to Michael Mann’s Heat. But the overlong running time and the awful twist ending bring it down to the point that the film is a rental at best.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Den of Thieves is in cinemas now.