I like a good heist flick (Logan Lucky is a recent top-notch addition to the genre), but Den of Thieves missed the mark for me in a couple spots, and it’s important to figure out/talk about why. This was one of the most important lessons I learned during my MFA program (shout out to Augsburg University…Go Auggies): It’s okay to not like something, but you should always consider what’s not working for you, so that you don’t end up doing the same thing in your own stories.
One of the hallmarks of a good heist flick is that regardless of who we spend time with in the movie–criminals, cops, or both–we have to care about the characters. We have to know that they’re worth our time. In Den of Thieves, the crew planning the heist–ex-military heavy-hitters–is worth our time. The group, comprised of semi-dynamic characters (played by Pablo Schreiber, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Evan Jones), consistently makes choices which brings them closer to their goal (robbing a federal reserve).
On the “right” side of the law is an LA Sheriff’s tactical team which moves and operates much like Vic Mackey’s wild bunch on FX’s The Shield. We don’t ever learn a lot about this crew except that they’re badasses, at odds with other branches of law-enforcement, and they aren’t afraid to break the law to…enforce the law?This group is lead by Gerard Butler, and I have no idea what in the hell to make of Gerry’s Nick O’Brien. Our introduction to the character is when he’s attempting to sneak into his own house after being out all night cheating on his wife. This doesn’t endear us to Nick O’Brien, but he hasn’t lost us yet. He’s starting at the bottom which means we hold out hope he makes decisions that’ll turn things around, that’ll lead to some kind of redemption. This is not the case. He spends the rest of the movie behaving like a shittier and shittier person. The only thing he cares about is thwarting the bank robbers, which normally would be fine. That’s an admirable goal/need for the head of an LA County Sheriff’s Department Major Crimes Task Force. Nick O’Brien is the exception. Because he does nothing throughout the flick to get the audience on his side, we’re rooting entirely for the criminals. He doesn’t deserve to catch them. And perhaps this is what the filmmakers intended. If this is the case, why did we have to spend so much time with Gerry Butler’s crew? Let us hang with bank robbers. Logan Lucky does an excellent job of striking this balance.
Lesson time. What does it all mean? What’s my big takeaway? Bearing this film’s potholes, I need to remember to ensure my characters are making interesting choices as they work toward their goals, and that the choices they make can cover a lot more characterization ground than any descriptions my narrators can offer.
Despite the criticisms above, I would still recommend giving Den of Thieves a watch. It’s got some killer action sequences, and the reveal and breakdown at the end is some Usual Suspects type stuff. It’s not a great heist movie, but it’ll scratch that itch if it’s what you’re in the mood for, and you’re all caught up on the others in the genre.
What are some of your favorite heist movies?