As Den of Thieves’s first shot, an overhead view of the rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles, gives way to the scene of an armored-car robbery that goes awry because of a trigger-happy thief, one may wonder if the film is more than just an homage to Heat, but also a copy-and-paste job. During its heist and shootout sequences, the film certainly displays a reverence for the taut and moody tension-building tactics of Michael Mann’s classic, but without a single compelling character or backstory to speak of, Den of Thieves is unable to bring even a modicum of emotional resonance to these sequences.
The film first intersects its flimsily sketched cops and thieves when gruff wildcard Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler), self-proclaimed leader of a group of rogue cops known as the Regulators, threatens Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), the driver for a group of thieves, trying to force him into revealing information about future crimes. After spending a lengthy stretch of time expounding the reasons for Donnie’s involvement with bank robbers, the film all but abandons this thread and shifts focus toward Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), the icy, dick-swinging Iraq War veteran who heads the group of thieves, and the mind games he plays with Nick, who’s now on their tail at every turn.
From a chest-puffing confrontation at a sushi joint and a bro-down at a gun range, to Merriman showing up at Nick’s home to display his unwillingness to back down, Christian Gudegast’s film is overly eager to position these two hot shots as two sides of the same coin, a la Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s characters in Heat. But no moral shading is injected into these characters, who are defined almost entirely by their macho bluster. Nick is a corrupt cop who cheats on his wife, but we never get a sense of whatever code guides his actions, just as we never understand whatever drove Merriman into his life of crime and as such might explain his cool, collected demeanor.
These thin characterizations are almost unforgivable given that Den of Thieves runs 140 minutes—which is to say, more than enough time to at least suggest that something, anything, might be weighing on Nick and Merriman’s consciousness. Doing so could have at least brought a sense of gravity to the otherwise well-constructed heist sequence that closes the film. Throughout this sequence, Gudegast not only finds creative ways for Merriman and his gang of thieves to infiltrate the National Reserve and steal unmarked bills set to be destroyed, but steadily escalates tension by rhythmically intercutting between the various thieves implementing their respective piece of the plan and the cops and feds as they struggle to stop them.
By the time this epic sequence spills out into the traffic of an L.A. street, Den of Thieves almost deserves comparison to Heat, at least on the level of craft. Until, that is, Gudegast slips in an entirely unnecessary and patently absurd coda that attempts to reframe everything that occurred in the story up to this point. It’s such a tonally jarring twist that it feels as if it’s been lifted in from a completely different film. And so Den of Thieves goes out feeling that it isn’t so much ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mann’s classic as it is hell-bent on ending up inside bargain bins the world over.