In the choice to create thieves who are intelligent, able and just downright interesting, Den of Thieves has an allure uncommon to most films.
One interesting part of Den of Thieves is its subtle cribbing from other films of the crime genre, allowing it to innovate in unexpected ways and with magnificent effect.
Consider the opening, for example. Heavily reminiscent of Heat, quieting the music, accentuating gunfire, this film brings the added effect of making viewers feel as if they are participants in the action rather than observers. We arrive on the scene with the guards of an armoured truck and mostly at low angles, noting that the guards’ morning has been uneventful and that they are bored and unalert. They stop at a doughnut shop. The robbers are then put into the scene unceremoniously, from which an admirable display of coordination springs. And while Heat had its highly lauded shootout scene seem oppressive and its criminals not altogether above the class of ordinary felons, this film presents its criminals as professional, responsive to their environs, so much so that when one teammate seems to overreact to the nervousness of a guard, the team leader instantly denigrates him, and does so without lapse in leading their overall coordination.
Herein lies another innovation: with his rebuke, the team leader does not go overboard. True, he does show significant emotion and continues to denigrate the team member for a small stretch after they return to their hideout, but really, his display of emotion is ultimately only as much as is needed to remind everyone that they will not operate by chance and so cannot be prone to mistakes. The team leader also lets them know tacitly and in the same breath that there is inescapable value to life and that it is much more preferable to rob without the loss of their own lives or of the lives of others. When he’s done, he moves on and merely explains the significance of their newfound status as cop killers — at which point the film catches him at a low angle and brands the end of the scene with his name: Merrimen. We sense he is formidable because of his wisdom and appreciate his regard for cinematic flair.
But before straying into an actual examination of the film’s odd but effective mixture of realism and cinematic flair, for which this is neither time nor place, it’s important to note that this mixture is used to emphasize an often neglected aspect of genre films. The purpose of the flair is to bring attention to the fact that, strangely enough, this film is a character study, or rather is an intimate study of three separate characters and a consideration of why they are as they are. Once we are met with the chyron at the end of the first scene, we know to prepare ourselves for one of the best kinds of film that can be offered to general audiences.
Next, we see what can be called our second vignette, this particular one dedicated to Big Nick. We see Big Nick in his truck, dishevelled, making his way home after what seems to have been a long night of illegality. Aware of his wrongdoing, and wishing to avoid reprimand, he sneaks into his own house through an open window. His wife, however, is waiting for him, and she knows very well what he has spent his night doing. He tells her he was working. She informs him that she got a text from him that shows he could not have have been doing the kind of work for which is he is paid. She wakes the kids and leaves the house. Big Nick, indeed, is in deep trouble. But before he has had enough time to digest his change in fortune, he gets a call that takes him to the crime scene that was the site of the opening robbery. It almost goes without saying that he looks out of place. His colleagues say as much, but then they too seem as if they don’t exactly belong. A federal agent who is also called to the scene here gives a welcomed acknowledgement to the oddity of Big Nick’s character, saying, “Big Nick, gangsta cop in the flesh.” Right on, Mr Federal Agent Man. Really, what kind of sheriff deputy calls himself and has others in the profession call him Big Nick?
The last main character is Donnie, who is found by Big Nick and is abducted from his place of work, a bar, because of his connection with Merrimen. The place he’s taken is a suite of apartments where Big Nick and his other sheriff deputy buddies are partying with hired women, are smoking and drinking. They want information from Donnie about Merrimen’s crew, along with information about that crew’s recent activities. Donnie unsurprisingly denies any affiliation with Merrimen and his crew. That is until Big Nick threatens him and jokes that this abduction and forced interrogation is occurring because it is much simpler than trying to get to him through the regular recourse of paperwork. He hints that more could be done to avoid paperwork should Donnie not be cooperative. Donnie then takes the opportunity to tell them that, yes, he knows Merrimen and his crew but he is only their driver and is kept in the dark on basically everything else. This is enough for Big Nick, who is now pleased that he has found cause to further play his gangsta cop routine.
The film also has many similarities to The Town, on which it makes a few subtle improvements. As was the case with that film, the criminals in Den of Thieves are much more likeable than are the law enforcement officers pursuing them. Though he may sometimes be funny, Big Nick is quite grating, and his companions fare no better. They mumble and speak in half-articulated sentences, they willfully flout laws and law-enforcement procedures, and they regularly inhabit places that they shouldn’t. Meanwhile, Merrimen and his crew are amiable and entertaining. They joke with each other in their downtime, and they go out to restaurants as one large, extended family. Particularly telling of their amiability is the way in which they handle a common milestone for one crew member with a teenage daughter. That daughter is about to go to prom, and so her date for the night comes to the house to retrieve her. The date is greeted by the mother, then he sees the girl, to whom he offers strong compliments before the crew member who is the father comes sidling into the room. He indicates that he would like a word with the boy and takes the date into the garage, where the entire crew and some additional friends lay in waiting. What follows is one of the most honest yet deceptive father talks perhaps ever put to screen. The crew members are aware of this fact, and they laugh just as we laugh.
Den of Thieves is made great by the steady succession of such revelatory moments. Moments like these bring us to elation and makes us realize that people are not always what they appear to be and that they are certainly much less frequently what was expected of them. It is inescapable that Merrimen and his crew are criminals, but one would have a hard time pointing to them in a crowd as the men most likely to commit the next robbery. They hardly seem seasoned thieves outside of their commission of crime. In fact, we would not be wrong to think that perhaps Merrimen, given his background before his spree of crime-committing began, might have made a successful career of crime-fighting had not one small, fateful, unseen event occurred. On the other hand, Big Nick looks the part of a criminal, has the problems of a criminal, technically commits criminal acts. Big Nick steals the valour and small allowances properly afforded men of law enforcement to play the macho man of his routine, while Merrimen and his crew steal because they have decided that, with their talents, they have little else to do. From this characterization provided by the film, we are asked to pose to ourselves a very pivotal question: Among which group of thieves would we rather spend our time? The answer is doubtless: Among the group that is more honourable.