Den of Thieves

Ever feel like robbing a bank, but your conscience and the  consequences blocked you? Well, if you’re willing to vicariously live out that fantasy through the crooks in this tense, constantly-surprising crime/action/drama, you can experience the thrill of a big heist, without the repercussions.


On one side of the law in the City of Angels, is the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s elite major crimes squad, dubbed the Regulators. They don’t bend the rules, they piss on them. Their leader is “Big” Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler in his best role/performance ever), who is quick to remind suspects, ‘You’re not the bad guys. We are!”


On the other side of the tracks is a group of super skilled, slick and high-tech robbers known as the Outlaws. These stealth ex-military men are led by Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), a former special forces-trained operative who is just a minute out of serving time in prison. The robbers are planning a gigantic heist at the impossible-to-penetrate Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Los Angeles. “53 break-in attempts and none got past the lobby,” warns Merrimen. The cops are on the thieves’ trail. They’re so close they can smell their sweat. But, the crew is not concerned.


Screenwriter/producer Christian Gudegast (London Has Fallen) marks his writing/directing debut with a grimy script, filled with gritty, unPC dialogue and vivid, chummy characters who live parallel lives. Everything is such a far cry from the overly-formulaic London Has Fallen that you wonder why Gudegast was wasting his time writing schlock when he had this much urban/drama savvy in his veins.


Plot twists come as fast as bullets out of a semi-automatic. Car chases and gun battles rival those in Baby Driver (editing by Oscar-winner Joel Cox, Unforgiven), and the director orchestrates those scenes with a keen eye for violence and adrenaline-pumping-action. He also keeps the tension thick in sequences that are perfectly clipped and linked. There’s a whisper of Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant in so many scenes you’d think that director’s finger was on the trigger. And, you can add in a dash of Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Prince of the City).


Tech elements add up nicely, making LA look both grand and filthy (cinematography by Terry Stacey, The Dream Catcher; production design by Kara Lindstrom, Strange Days; art direction Elizabeth Boller, Get Out). You never question the inside of an apartment, a mechanic’s shop, police station, office or bank. Everything looks real. Everything looks normal. Then all of a sudden, all s—t breaks out.


Credit Gerard Butler for causing a lot of the freakish, violent mayhem. He was so cool in the film 300 as King Leonidas, then it was like he had bills to pay and he got involved in a string of high-paying, worthless, reputation-sullying big-budget movies: P.S. I Love You, Olympus Has Fallen, Geostorm. Well, he’s back on track as a badass officer who could intimidate the devil. Physically, he looks like an old, crusty cop who never met a bottle of Jack Daniel’s he didn’t like.


Butler’s perfect foil is the cool-under-pressure Pablo Schreiber who many will recognize from his role as George ‘Pornstache’ Mendez on Orange Is the New Black or from the film 13 Hours. Schreiber serves up an ice-cold attitude that never gets ruffled. His Merrimen is ruthless and smart. He makes Nick’s blood boil and the chemistry between the two is explosive.


You’d think those two actors would steal the movie. But no, that honor goes to O’Shea Jackson, Jr., the son of Ice Cube who played his dad in Straight Outta Compton. As Donnie, an amiable bartender who got himself mixed up in the wrong crowd, Jackson’s blue-collar persona makes it easy to hope he’ll survive the beatings and abuse he receives from both the Regulators and Outlaws.


The rest of the multi-cultural cast holds down their part of the screen: 50 Cent (Power), Evan Jones (8 Mile), Sonya Balmores (Beyond the Break), Cooper Andrews (The Walking Dead), Mo McRae (Sons of Anarchy), Kaiwi Lyman (Trespassers) and Maurice Compte (Narcos). Based on their performances, they will all go on to bigger and better projects.


They say crime doesn’t pay, but this heist film could make a bundle.


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