Yeah, it is obvious Director Christian Gudegast's directorial debut is heavily inspired by Michael Mann's epic crime drama Heat, but isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Den of Thieves is no Heat: It is blunter, less stylish and lacking in the character development of Mann's classic. That is not to say Den of Thieves is a bad flick. I actually enjoyed this robbers versus Los Angeles sheriff's deputies actioner, and it kept me entertained throughout its nearly 150-minute running time. With a rare emotive performance from Gerard Butler and pleasing supporting turns from Pablo Schreiber and O'Shea Jackson Jr., Gudegast's film is far more accomplished than its direct-to-DVD-level advertising campaign led me to believe. For a film released during the doldrums of January, a traditional dumping ground for lame action and horror junkers, Den of Thieves is better-than-average Friday night home entertainment.
The film opens with tracking shots over a hazy, nighttime Los Angeles and text scrawl about the frightening number of bank robberies that occur yearly and daily in the area. In a scene reminiscent of the opening armored-car robbery in Heat, a team of criminals, led by Ray Merrimen (Schreiber), holds up an armored truck outside a donut shop. When a frightened guard drops his coffee, trigger-happy Bosco (Evan Jones) shoots him dead, triggering a gunfight between the men and responding officers. The next morning, Major Crimes Detective Nick O'Brien (Butler) tackles the crime scene, and recognizes the M.O. He's been tracking recently paroled Merrimen and suspects his involvement. It is soon revealed Merrimen is planning to rob the United States Reserve of $30 million in discarded bills.
Butler sure as hell is no Al Pacino; and Schrieber is definitely not a substitute for Robert De Niro. Even so, both men are suitably menacing in their adversarial roles. The screenplay, which Gudegast wrote, lacks character development. We know Merrimen is a multi-time felon but not much else. The film does set up a crumbling home life for O'Brien, courtesy of his own philandering actions, and there are a couple of decent scenes when the big-shot cop breaks down as his wife and two young girls walk out of his life. Jackson is good as the crew's driver; recruited to ace the getaway and pull off preparatory tasks like scoping out the Federal Reserve by delivering Chinese food to two employees. O'Brien and his deputies are about as rogue as Merrimen and the boys, and Den of Thieves gives the distinct impression that collateral damage is always a possibility.
There are a couple of solid action sequences as the robbers break into a local bank branch to score some currency to use in their later, more complicated plan to infiltrate the ultra-secure Federal Reserve. That requires some suspension of disbelief, but the tension remains moderately high. The film is less successful with its moral dilemmas. Unlike Heat, which drew distinct lines between taking lives in its crimes and staying above the fold, Den of Thieves sees the majority of the criminals pulling the trigger, and the script attempts to explain that away by saying they "target uniforms." This renders the film a fairly standard bad guys versus the law story, even though it flirts with greater ambitions. Even with an extended running time, Den of Thieves is fairly economical in its storytelling, and Gudegast keeps things moving at a break-neck clip, sometimes to the film's detriment. There are a couple of hastily edited sequences that could have used some breathing room, particularly when Merrimen uses his stripper girlfriend to feed O'Brien bum information. When the credits rolled after a slightly tricky ending, I knew I would not remember much about the film in a week's time. Still, it was fun while it lasted.
The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image comes from a digital source, and exhibits both the strengths and weaknesses of digital photography. Fine-object detail is often excellent; the image reveals the grit and grime of crime scenes, hardened facial features and seedy locations. The high-contrast, neon-tinted color scheme offers bold colors and inky blacks, which crush on occasion. The digital photography is slightly noise in spots, and I noticed minor aliasing in tracking shots and in landscapes. Wide shots are crisp and clean, motion is natural and blur is minimal. This is an overall solid presentation.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Mix (where's the Atmos or 7.1?) is solidly immersive, with good effects panning, LFE action and crystal-clear dialogue. Gunfire and explosions ricochet around the surrounds, and ambient effects, like weather and traffic, also circle the viewer. Range and fidelity are both strong, and the score is integrated appropriately. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the Blu-ray, a DVD and a digital copy. The discs are packed in a standard case that is wrapped in a slipcover. The set includes the theatrical (2:20:28) and unrated (2:28:49) versions of the film. I only watched the unrated version and did not notice anything particularly "unrated" about it. Extras include an Alternate Ending (4:51/HD); Alpha Males (2:06/HD), about the characters; Into the Den (2:06/HD), an EPK featurette; Alameda Corridor (3:13/HD), about the climactic action sequence; Outtakes (23:22/HD), which are really deleted scenes; a Commentary by Director Christian Gudegast and Producer Tucker Tooler on the theatrical cut; and two Theatrical Trailers (4:54 total/HD).
Heavily inspired by Michael Mann's crime epic Heat, this film falls short of that masterpiece at nearly every turn. Nevertheless, this Los Angeles-set actioner is solid entertainment, and offers better-than-expected performances from Gerard Butler and O'Shea Jackson Jr. Not particularly memorable but an acceptable imitation of its inspiration, Den of Thieves is Recommended.