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‘Den of Thieves’ Is an Underappreciated Heist Movie Masterpiece

The 2018 Gerard Butler thriller might be a derivative of other robbery films, but that makes it no less effective at nailing all of your favorite notes

Elias Stein/STXFilms/Ringer

2,400 times a year. 44 times a week. 9 times a day. Every 48 minutes. I watch Den of Thieves. And so this article is that: a thing about Den of Thieves. Some preliminary information:

Den of Thieves came out last year. It’s a heist movie. It stars Gerard Butler as Big Nick O’Brien, a (probably) crooked law enforcement officer who runs a major crimes unit. And it stars Pablo Schreiber as Ray Merrimen, a former Marine turned bank robber mastermind. And it stars 50 Cent as Levi Enson Levoux, also a former Marine and second-in-command to Merrimen in the heist crew. And it stars O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Donnie Wilson, a jelly-bellied getaway driver who gets pulled into a job bigger than he can handle (we find out later that actually he’s the most devious of the bunch). Merrimen and his team angle to steal $30 million from the Los Angeles Federal Reserve (to be specific, they hope to steal $30 million that the Federal Reserve is planning to shred, because if they steal that money then they’ll be able to spend it freely since nobody will look for it because it’s supposed to be shredded anyway). Big Nick and his team angle to stop them.

And that’s the movie.

And it’s great.

The Best Foreshadowing in the Movie

It’s always (to me, anyway) enjoyable when a movie dangles a piece of information in your face so blatantly and so loudly that it becomes invisible. That’s what they do with Donnie 16 minutes in here. He’s working at the bar and a buddy asks him how he’s able to remember everybody’s drink. It’s a regular question that begs a regular answer. Donnie responds, “Lots of reps, man. I’m in complete control of my environment and people don’t even know.” It’s a nothing line, really; it’s the kind of thing a guy who thinks he’s cool would say while he was in the middle of trying to sound cool. And so you hear it, and you’re like, “Oh. OK. I get it. This guy is a doof. Because nobody in a heist movie has ever said something like this sincerely.” And then they okeydoke you by having Gerard Butler sneak up on him in the parking lot and knock him out literally two minutes later and you’re like, “Ha. Well there it is. I guess he’s not in complete control of his environment after all.”

But then you get to the end of the movie and find out that Donnie was secretly the one pulling all the levers and twisting all the knobs and it’s like, “Holy shit. He WAS in complete control of his environment. He KNEW Big Nick was out there in the parking lot waiting for him. He KNEW he had to get picked up right there so he could aim Big Nick toward Merrimen. He KNEW that Big Nick and Merrimen, two mountains of machismo and volcanic testosterone, were going to be so caught up in trying to out Big Dick the other that neither of them were going to notice him sneaking out the back door with all the money.”

The Best Line in the Movie

There’s a first-place finisher and a second-place finisher.

The first-place line happens early on in the movie right after the opening heist that ends with, among other things, several police officers dead. The thieves are all gathered up together in their den and Enson, sensing that Merrimen is carrying the entire moment on his shoulders, asks him if he’s OK. Merrimen, staring into the back of the armored car they’ve just stolen, allows the question to go unanswered for a second. His shoulders are tense and his neck is thick and his gaze is less a gaze and more a weapon. He’s the only one in the shot, because he’s the only one who needs to be in the shot, because he’s the guy the movie is telling us is going to be the Big Bad. The camera zooms in on him slowly as he finally speaks, and his voice sounds like someone dragging a heavy chain down a sidewalk. “We’re cop killers now.” It’s a wonderful line. Because it’s one thing to watch a group of bad guys mow down a handful of unnamed cops in a movie. That’s a common thing, particularly in these types of movies. But it’s another thing entirely to watch them fully confront the idea afterward. There’s just something so unsettling about laying bare the stakes for the rest of the movie like that. Be successful or die. Those are the only two ways that things can end for either side now.

The second-place line happens later on in the movie. The major crimes unit is together in their area of the police station and they’re about to do the thing when they all talk about how dangerous the guys are that they’re trying to catch. Before that speech begins, one of the cops says to the other, “Check your email.” (This one isn’t really the second-coolest line in the movie. In all likelihood, it’s probably something like when Big Nick says to Donnie, “You’re not the bad guys. We are,” or something like when Big Nick says, “Nothing in the truck? They stole a fucking empty armored truck?” But it’s just always funny to me to hear these vicious, deadly, dangerous cops talk about email.)

The Most Underappreciated Scene in the Movie

It’s Big Nick interrupting a dinner party to sign his divorce papers in front of everyone. And right here feels like a good spot to point out that Big Nick is probably the second-best character that Gerard Butler has ever gotten to play, finishing just below Leonidas in 300 and just ahead of Clyde Shelton in Law Abiding Citizen. He’s so good at being scumbag-y and weathered and illicit.

The Most Underappreciated Actor in the Movie

It’s 50 Cent. He gives a legitimately good and interesting performance. Everything he does is so understated and so subdued. And a lot of times when an actor tries to do something like that, it ends up just being boring. But when you can nail it, which is what 50 Cent does, it doesn’t feel boring. It feels massive. It feels like it has gravity.

The Best Cliché in the Movie

There’s one guy explaining why he shot a guard by saying, “He fucking went for his gun!” There’s one guy saying after a heist, “Let’s just call it quits while we’re ahead.” And there’s one guy saying of someone else who is acting in a reckless manner, “Is he off his meds?” Those are the three best, most clichéd clichés. I vote the first one here, if for no other reason than because the guard actually did go for his gun.

The Best Scene in the Movie

This answer depends on how many times you’ve watched Den of Thieves. If you’ve seen it just once or twice, then it’s one of three scenes. It’s either:

1. The scene when the kid (Rolando) comes to pick up Enson’s daughter (Maloa) for prom. Enson, doing the Intimidating Dad thing, asks to speak with Rolando privately, then walks him into his garage, which, bad luck for Rolando, happens to be filled with eight or nine large and angry-looking men. Enson tells Rolando that if he even approaches the out-of-bounds line with Maloa that he’s going to cripple him, and then he walks Rolando back inside. After they go inside, the large and angry-looking men stay in character for a few seconds, then they all start laughing at themselves. (A thing I’ve always wondered about this scene: For the entirety of the movie, we’re presented with dueling story lines. We’re watching the criminals getting ready to try to rob a place, and we’re watching the cops getting ready to try to stop them. Every beat one side has is balanced out by a beat from the other side. I wonder if this scene—if showing Enson at home being involved in his family’s life—is the counterweight to us seeing Big Nick’s personal life falling apart? I don’t know that it is, but I feel like it is.)

2. The scene when we see how the criminals are actually robbing the Federal Reserve. This one is a contender because Den of Thieves is a heist movie and so of course the big heist scene at the end is a contender. (There are always a few ways to handle heist scenes. I like the version in Den of Thieves the most. I like when things start out slow and it’s the bad guys just trying to outsmart the good guys and everything feels all tense and shit. Then, eventually, something little goes wrong several minutes later and suddenly things have devolved into a giant gunfight in the street and people are slowly getting killed off.)

3. The scene at the end of the movie when it gets revealed that Donnie was the mastermind, not Merrimen. Twist endings are fun. And this one was cool because there was no point in the movie when you felt like it was one of those heist movies in which one of the people in the crew was going to double-cross some of the other people in the crew. (An easy way to tell someone in the crew is going to try to double-cross the others is you just look at everyone and if Edward Norton is one of the faces you see, then bang. There you go. A double-crossing is inevitable.) They just do a really good job of banging home the point that all the guys came up together and so you know none of them are flipping. And O’Shea Jackson Jr. is a good-enough actor to convince you that he really believes he’s in over his head, and people who are in over their heads are incapable of double-crossing so he’s out as a possible double-flipper too. And more to that point …

If you’ve seen Den of Thieves three or more times, then the best scene is clear: It’s when Donnie is being interrogated by Big Nick and the boys in the hotel room. The first time you watch that scene, all you do is feel bad for Donnie, really. Big Nick is leaning on him and bullying him and threatening him, and Donnie just looks so scared and so out of place and so completely overwhelmed. You see him crack and it’s like, “Well, yeah. This poor guy pissed himself after he got tasered and knocked out. Of course he’d crack.” But then you watch the scene again after you’ve been through Den of Thieves a few times and you realize just how masterful O’Shea Jackson Jr. is in that moment. He pins down all the pieces. He checks off all the boxes. He’s feeds Big Nick all the information he needs without ever tipping off Big Nick that he’s doing it on purpose, but more importantly, he feeds Big Nick all the information he needs without ever tipping off the audience that he’s doing it on purpose. It really feels like Donnie is just a bit player in the war between Big Nick and Merrimen. And then they cap it all off with Big Nick clapping his hands afterward and saying, “Well I thought that was relatively convincing. Good stuff.” It’s just all a lot of fun, and one of those performances where you go, “OK. Cool. Anything O’Shea Jackson Jr. is in, I’m probably gonna watch it.”

(A small thing: There’s a part when Donnie is talking to Big Nick when he recounts how he came to be the driver of the team. During the flashback, we see Donnie sitting in a bar with two people talking. One of the people says to Donnie, who is trying to prove that he should be allowed on as the driver, “Donnie, tell ’em about the Trans-Am series.” Donnie responds, “Ummm. Drove Trans-Am series, like he said, for about a season.” It always reminds me of that moment in The Office when Michael is introducing Ryan to everyone and Michael walks up to Dwight and says, “Dwight, tell ’em about the kung fu and the car and everything,” and Dwight says, “Yeah. I got a ’78 280Z.”)

Just a Quick List of Small Things in the Movie

  • The way that Big Nick chews his gum.
  • The way that Merrimen puts his seat belt on when Donnie is proving to him that he’s a good driver.
  • The way that Gus looks at the women at the table during the Benihana standoff.
  • The way the guard at the Federal Reserve is so serious about having people sign in when they visit.
  • The way Merrimen presses the gun into Donnie’s eyeball when he’s questioning him.
  • The way Donnie says, “You know I’m the last person that’ll fuck this up” when Merrimen is questioning him about working with the cops and you realize on the rewatch that the reason he says that is because Donnie’s actually the one who put the heist together.
  • The way they tell the pedestrians to duck down behind the engine block because if a shootout happens the bullets can’t get through the engine block. (This is useful information that I hope I never have to make use of.)
  • Big Nick’s coat.

The Best Worst Criticism of the Movie

A common criticism of Den of Thieves is that it is, essentially, a microwaved version of Heat, Michael Mann’s 24-year-old heist-movie masterpiece. And that’s a true thing and a real thing. There are just too many similarities to ignore. Both movies are set in Los Angeles. Both movies are about expert thieves who run up against a lieutenant in the major crimes division who intends on seeing to it that they meet their demise. Both movies have a guy whose home life is falling apart. Both movies have a criminal leader who says he’ll never go back to prison. Both movies start with an armored-car robbery going wrong and both movies end with a One Last Score robbery that goes wrong that eventually turns into a daylight gunfight in the street. On and on, thus and thus, such and such. So let me first say that I don’t disagree with that criticism. Because, again, it’s a true criticism and a real criticism.

But let me second say: I don’t care. I just don’t. If you’re going to ape a heist movie while making a heist movie, then, I mean, you should absolutely ape the best heist movie of all time. Because even if you only 70 percent succeed, for example, it’s still one of those situations when it’s like, “Having LeBron at 70 percent is better than having someone from two-thirds of the rest of the league at 100 percent,” you know what I’m saying? So go for it. That’s what I say. If you’ve got a new idea for a heist movie, then great. Make that movie. Widows was fantastic. Logan Lucky was fantastic. Hell or High Water was fantastic. But if you don’t have a new idea for a heist movie, then just make a version of Heat. And more to that point …

The Best Standoff Between Merrimen and Big Nick in the Movie

The most engrossing seven-minute stretch in Heat is when Vincent and Neil sit down at the diner together and size each other up. And one of the things I like a lot about Den of Thieves is that they saw that and were like, “We should do that, but let’s do it, like, four or five times instead of once.” Because, for as fun as it is to see Donnie turn everything on its head at the end of Den of Thieves, it’s the all-caps ALPHA MALE ENERGY COLLISION between Big Nick and Merrimen that really moves Den of Thieves forward. And so there’s the standoff that Merrimen and Big Nick have in a Benihana. And there’s the standoff that Merrimen and Big Nick have at the gun range. And there’s the standoff that Merrimen and Big Nick have in Merrimen’s apartment. And there’s the telephone standoff that Merrimen and Big Nick have during the diversion hostage situation. And there’s the standoff that Merrimen and Big Nick have during the shootout. You can pick any one of those that you want for this category, truly. They’re all wonderful.

But just so it’s said, I prefer the gun-range standoff over all the others. I love that they don’t actually talk to each other during the scene. I love that there are guns around. I love that they shake their heads at each other when the other isn’t looking. I love that it turns into a shooting competition between the two. I love that Merrimen subtly threatens Big Nick’s life by emptying five clips worth of bullets into the center mass of his shooting target and then walking away. I love that the director angles the camera upward at Merrimen so he feels almost superheroic.

I love it all.

I love Den of Thieves.