Los Angeles holds the unenviable title of the city with the most bank robberies in the world, one every forty-eight minutes, give or take. That includes armoured vans used to transport the dollars from one location to another, and just one such vehicle is being menaced by a gang right now, tonight. They park at a doughnut shop to pick up snacks for the end of their shift only to be surrounded by a group of automatic-weapon-toting men, shouting at them, and when they resist or simply sit there too stunned to react, they are fired upon and murdered: the guard in the back is similarly executed in the assault, and despite the cops, the criminals manage to get away...
The weird thing is, the armoured van contained... no cash whatsoever. So why were the gang so keen to steal one of those? Another weird thing about Den of Thieves was that it was a movie starring Gerard Butler and 50 Cent which somehow, against the odds that their track record implied, was surprisingly good. Especially for a piece that essentially mixed Michael Mann's Heat with Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, which might not sound too appetising, yet the writer and director here, Christian Gudegast, had obviously done his homework and fashioned an action thriller that combined the better elements of both those cult favourites to craft one of his own.
Butler in particular was suffering in career doldrums when this was released, his previous effort had been the turkey Geostorm where he gave every indication of not giving a shit anymore, yet here, probably because he was a producer on the project, he was genuinely engaged with the material and managed to give a very decent performance. Gudegast still felt the need to pad out his otherwise airtight plot with background detail on Butler's lead character's family life, and resorted to cliché as a result, so he was yet another cop with a troubled marriage, and there was even the same treatment for his adversaries, if not to the same extent, but the rest was so good you wouldn't mind.
That chief antagonist is the man behind the vehicle theft, professional criminal Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), and throughout the impression was of him and Butler's Big Nick O'Brien butting heads in an attempt to out macho the other (one liked to imagine the whole cast of he-men indulging in arm wrestling contests behind the scenes as they waited for the shots to be set up). 50 Cent was on Merrimen's team, and these were no dumb miscreants, they had a plan and it was established with military precision, the ultimate goal to pull a heist on the headquarters of the Federal Reserve on Los Angeles where the unused bills went to be shredded. Just think: if you could get to the money before it was destroyed, you would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and they could just get away with it, too.
If it wasn't for that meddling Big Nick, that was, who is not only following their every move as best he can but is making no secret of the fact: there was an unexpected degree of humour here that was laugh out loud funny in places; crude, quite often, but funny all the same. Also in the cast was rising star O'Shea Jackson, building on his celebrity-making turn in Straight Outta Compton to prove himself every bit the equal of his dad when it came to this acting lark: he played the weak link in Merrimen's chain, who nonetheless must be relied upon heavily, creating some of the plot's tension. You don't want the baddies to get away with it, but you kind of do, as your sympathies were toyed with (hence the inclusion of the domestic business). The action sequences were extremely impressive, in particular the shoot-outs where we never lost track of who was where and what they were doing. You could say the same of the film as a whole, yes, it was derivative, but it played some old tunes with great virtuosity. Music by Cliff Martinez.
[Sony's Blu-ray has an audio commentary and three featurettes as extras.]