If the IMDb Top 250 movies list gave birth to a movie, it would look a lot like Den of Thieves. This hyper-masculine heist film counts as its fathers the likes of Heat, The Usual Suspects, The Dark Knight and The Sting; but oddly, it has no mother. There’s no room for femininity in a film like this, a film of blazing machine guns, black-clad bank robbers that stinks of steroid sweat.
I remember reading about how bodybuilders, in the lead up to a big event, would deprive themselves of any fluids for hours or even days. The resultant dehydration would provide extra muscle definition as their parched skin was sucked into crevices between biceps and quads. It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for Den of Thieves, which – in addition to being filled with implausibly-ripped actors – drains itself of any drop of sympathetic humanity to leave a crude beast impressive and intimidating in its muscularity. The film’s female characters are rarely-seen props or victims; the male characters’ backstories are hewn down to glancing mentions of marine service. Cliff Martinez delivers a score that’s minimalistic even by his standards; a low droning hum that creates and sustains an alienating sense of dread.
What remains in this dehydrated husk of a film is men. On one side of the law, Pablo Schreiber’s alpha male bank robber, Ray, accompanied by his crew – the taciturn Enson (50 Cent), the violent Bo (Evan Jones), the towering Marcus (Marcus LaVoi) – and an arsenal of high-powered weaponry. On the other side of law – though we quickly learn it’s pretty much the same side – is sentient dick pic Gerard Butler’s ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien, whose crew of tattooed LASD officers are more interested in killing criminals and getting fucked up than attaining any approximation of ‘justice’. The only sympathetic one of the lot is Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr), conspicuous for his vulnerability: when he’s abducted and threatened by Big Nick’s goons, it’s not long before his reduced to blubbering sobs.
Borrowing heavily from the aforementioned Heat – and much of Michael Mann’s filmography – writer/director Christian Gudegast places these men on a collision course revolving around an audacious bank heist and a fuckton of gunfire. Where films such as this would typically encourage to root for one player over another, Gudegast goes out of his way to emphasise the unlikability of both Ray and Big Nick. Scenes where Ray and his men intimidate Enson’s daughter’s date, or where a drunken Nick threatens his estranged wife underline how brutish these men are, how ill-suited they are for polite society. We wait for their inevitable confrontation while wanting neither to win.
‘Wait’ is the operative word there; Den of Thieves’ chief failing is an over-generous runtime. The sense of a moral vacuum does require the chasms of silence that the film invites, but I found that the action scenes were overlong. (That said, I’d level the same accusation at many of Mann’s films, so I may be in a minority here.)
It’s hard to be sure if Den of Thieves is an intentional or accidental critique of exaggerated masculinity; Gudegast’s background (writing films like A Man Apart or London Has Fallen) might suggest the latter, while a rug pull in the film’s final moments suggest he was going for something jauntier than what comes across on screen, a kind of Heat-meets-Ocean’s Eleven (or Logan Lucky). Intentions aside, the final product is a discomfortingly vivid portrait of ‘alpha’ males: all guns and swagger, any drop of humanity having dried out long ago.