Maaaaassive spoilers for Den of Thieves.
Den of Thieves is a cops and robbers bank-heist film that has be dubbed an inferior version of Heist, the quintessential example of this genre. One of key complaints about Den of Thieves is the amount of raw machismo that’s present, as 99% of the cast look like they’ve walked right out of the WWE. Because of this, a lot of the feedback and reviews of Den of Thieves tend to get lost in all the muscles and gunfire and lose sight of the message the film is actually trying to convey. Despite the apparent muscle-bound bone-headed plot, I’d put forward that there is actually a level of subtly that most people missed or just straight up chose to ignore.
Den of Thieves focuses on three men; Nicholas "Big Nick" O'Brien , a dirty cop who plays by his own rules, and Ray Merrimen, an ex-marine turned bank robber. Both these men are the epitome of Alpha males, they walk into a room and they own it regardless of what’s going on. The third is Donnie Wilson, a shorter, less physically imposing man who works in a bar. While the first two had years in the military or law enforcement and played football, Donnie only had a year and a half in the military, and played soccer. Straight off the bat, this guy is pegged as less masculine than the other two and he’s even told directly that he’s not in the same league as either of them.
We meet Big Nick when he walks onto a crime scene, clearly hung over, where he pulls a doughnut from the ground before eating half of it and tossing the rest next to the body. Screw procedure, to hell with contaminating the crime scene, Big Nick is a maverick cop who doesn’t give a shit but he gets results, goddamn it! A key part of his character is his attire, you could put him in a biker bar and he would blend right in. The beard, scraggly hair, rings and leather jacket all send the clear message that this is not a man with which you want to fuck.
And then in walks an FBI agent, Lobbin’ Bob, who has been called to the scene of the crime because it involved the theft of an armored car that resulted in the deaths of several police officers. Lobbin’ Bob is smaller, clean shaven with a nice haircut, and he’s wearing a suit. These two know each other and clearly don’t like one another. Lobbin’ Bob is everything that Big Nick is not and the later even makes fun of the former being a vegan. State and Federal law enforcement issues aside, there is a conflict in their different approaches to masculinity.
Big Nick is a man’s man and he likes to stay out all night, drinking and doing drugs with his buddies while banging hookers. We see him slinking home one morning, Everlast’s “What It’s Like” playing in the car, and his wife catches him deleting his call log in the kitchen. He was so drunk or stoned, or both, the night before that he accidentally sent her a text instead of the girl he’d just finished drilling. Needless to say, his wife takes their two daughters and leaves…. but not without mentioning that she’s going to go find a guy that can get his dick hard for her.
Looking at his home life, we can see that he’s surrounded by women which probably contributes to why he’s so married to the job. He probably feels so out of place there that he doesn’t know what to do with himself when he’s around them. Cheating on his wife aside, he is genuinely distraught when he realizes she’s taking their daughters away. On top of this, despite him clearly being able to snap her like a twig, when she begins to lay into him, he just stands there and takes it without hitting back. He may be a piece of shit, but he’s clearly got some principles.
Ray Merrimen, and a few of his gang of bank robbers, are ex-military. Despite turning to a life of crime, they’ve still kept some of that code of conduct and it’s translated into a sort of honor-among-thieves. While they’re quite content to gun down security personnel and police officers who stand in their way, they chose not to shoot any civilians even if they’re witnesses to the gangs crimes. They were trained to shoot people in uniforms, not civilians, and so that’s what they do, they repeatedly let innocent bystanders go. Ray is ruthless, but just like Big Nick he’s not without principles.
While Ray doesn’t have any kids of his own, one of his gang, Levi Enson Levoux, has a wife and two daughters. His eldest daughter is about to go to her prom night, and her date arrives to pick her up. Levi takes the young man into the garage for a chat, where he’s met with half a dozen bodybuilders, Ray included, who could probably pull him apart like a chicken wing. They threaten the young man into treating Levi’s daughter right, and go into great detail about what will happen to him if anything happens to her. The cocky young man who walked through the front door to pick up his date leaves in a decidedly more terrified state.
The families of the men, the two who have families that we actually see, being all women is an important part of the film. Because despite these men choosing to surround themselves with other men, in the aspects of their lives where they don’t have any control they’re surrounded by women. As macho as Big Nick and Levi Levoux both are, neither of them have any sons and there will be nobody to carry on their names after they’re gone. As much as these men have tried to rid themselves of anything remotely feminine, they’ve been unable to fully escape it. It’s a hint that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to live in modern society and escape women… because they’re a key part of it too.
As all this is going on, the robbers are planning to rob the federal reserve bank, while the cops are trying to figure out who they are, what they’re up to and how to stop them. Big Nick ends up nabbing Donnie, who wakes up in a hotel room full of police officers and hookers. They make light of the fact that he pissed himself when Big Nick tasered him and then basically torture him into telling them everything they want to know about Ray’s gang. Donnie tells them that he’s their driver and agrees to be a snitch for them. This tiny, unimposing man has suddenly found himself caught between two beasts who will stop at nothing to succeed.
Big Nick gets served divorce papers from his wife, and he tracks her down and actually confronts her while she’s on a double date with some friends and a new man. This new guy is tiny and timid, more so than any other male in the movie, and you can see that his wife has gone for the complete polar opposite of Big Nick. “Metro” would be the right word to describe the two men on this double date. Needless to say, Big Nick walks into the room and despite the fact that one of them is quite well-built, it’s obvious he’s someone who goes to the gym for fitness and isn’t actually tough. Big Nick threatens everyone, forces the man who’s on a date with his wife to hug him, and then signs the divorce papers and leaves. He’s the toughest guy in the room, everyone knows it, but he still leaves defeated.
This is where some of that aforementioned subtly comes into play. In the very next scene when he’s having a meet-up with Donnie to learn about the gangs plans, he’s in a men’swear store looking at suits. He’s been wearing leather the entire film, he made fun of Lobbin’ Bob for wearing a suit at the start, but right after the scene where he dominates the two men his wife was on a double date with he’s trying on a suit of his own. He’s already figuring out that maybe his approach isn’t the only, let alone best, way to deal with life. He’s lost his wife, he couldn’t scare her into taking him back… so he’s going to explore what the other guys are doing, by trying on a suit.
But there are still criminals who are going to rob a bank, so Big Nick goes and has a pissing contest with them, just to let them know he’s onto them. He meets Ray Merriman at the shooting range and starts showing off with his pistol, but then gets shown up himself because he forgot that Ray was a marine and can shoot at center mass like the trained killer he is. Not willing to give up just yet, Big Nick goes to strip club and picks up Ray’s girlfriend and bangs her… but then that was all part of the plan, because Ray told her to go along with it and to feed him some bad information. Neither men really saw this woman as worth anything, she was just a piece of trash to be used to get to the other. Ray doesn’t even care that Big Nick screwed his girl, he just goes ahead and sleeps with her afterwards as well.
Big Nick gets to see one of his daughters one last time before the big robbery, and he ends up breaking down in his car afterwards. Along with this, there’s a scene with Big Nick standing alone on a beach at sun rise, or sun set. Either way, it’s a moment of reflection for him. He’s not only got time to think about the battle ahead, but he’s got time to think about how he ended up standing there alone instead of being at home in bed with his wife. Den of Thieves does have lulls in the action like this, ones that hint that there’s more going on beneath the surface.
The day of the robbery arrives, and it’s suitably hectic. Big Nick and his team get fooled by a distraction, thanks to the bad intelligence Big Nick was fed by Ray’s girlfriend, where the gang pretend to rob one bank but quickly sneak away undetected to commit the real robbery elsewhere. Ray and his gang succeed in robbing the federal reserve bank, a historical first, but quickly get bogged down in a traffic jam. With Big Nick and his team close behind them, the two groups of men prepare for the inevitable shoot out.
One of Big Nick’s team is killed, most are injured, while most of Ray’s gang are killed. Levi Levoux’s dying words are of regret for his daughters. Once the dust has settled, Big Nick is left with no stolen money and a dead teammate, and it’s up to him to call the man’s wife and explain what happened. Lobbin’ Bob shows up, says he’s sorry about Big Nick’s dead teammate and then tells him that he really needs to stop smoking. He then offers him a piece of organic nicotine gum, and here’s the clincher…
He fucking takes it!
Big Nick has had nothing but contempt for Lobbin’ Bob the entire film, and every time they’ve met they’ve butted heads. But now, having lost his wife and kids, and having to call a fellow officers wife to explain that he’s been killed in the line of duty, he realizes that he can’t punch or intimidate his way out of every problem. And the guy who’s spent the whole movie eating doughnuts, drinking booze and taking drugs, suddenly takes a piece of organic nicotine gum. It’s not a 180 degree turn, it’s not even a 90 degree turn, but it’s a small step in the right direction. Big Nick managed to survive to the end, and although being the alpha dog has gotten him through the job, it’s left the rest of his life in tatters. Even though we never get to see if it’s successful or not, trying on the suit, breaking down at seeing his daughter, and taking the gum, all hint that he’s at least considering the prospect of changing his ways.
And the thing is, the one man to come out on top was Donnie. The small unassuming guy that everyone else beat up and pushed around, he outsmarted them all and got away with all the money. He had his own plan going on the whole time, and despite being surrounded by guys twice his size with kill counts that’d make Rambo blush, he beat them all. And this is why I hated that this film got slammed by critics and movie-goers, because nobody fucking understood what it was trying to say.
Den of Thieves is an analysis and exploration of masculinity in the modern age, about how the old school ways don’t work anymore. You can’t be a caveman in the modern age, because we’re not running from saber-toothed tigers any longer. Reviews, articles and blog posts such as this, this, this, this, this and this all focus on the fact that toxic masculinity is present and seem to miss the fact that the movie is actually about toxic masculinity. Being a hyper masculine douche-bag either gets you killed, or leaves you with nothing - that’s the message of this story. The tiny and timid guy gets Big Nick’s wife, the soft and pudgy Donnie gets away with millions of dollars. You can be fit, you can be strong, but the Marlboro Man “tough guy” routine isn’t a surefire path to success anymore.
My problem is that Den of Thieves is a great exploration of this, but people were so quick to tear it down without even trying to figure out what it meant. If they’d actually taken a moment, they would’ve realized that it’s a film that appeals to guys, especially macho guys, but one that ends up showing them that this path isn’t always the best option in life. If they’d given it a chance, they would’ve realized that it’s actually helping bring about the changes they desire. Instead, people just saw the typical macho characters and decided that it was worth more as fuel for the outrage engine, rather than something that would appeal to those they actually want to change. Den of Thieves is a film that’s about men, for men. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it makes it the perfect vehicle to get a message across to them.
Shows like Orange is the New Black, The Handmaid’s Tale and Wynonna Earp are all shows that are insincere attempts to evoke some sort of social change, because they’re designed to preach to those already converted. Nothing those shows say is ever going to reach the ears of those their creators purport to want to change the opinions of, because they’re not designed for them. What guy, toxic masculinity or no, is gong to watch a film or show with all female leads, where all men are perpetual oppressors and enemies? It’s ridiculous to think such an approach would work, it’s ridiculous to the point of it being literally unbelievable. It’s like trying to catch a mouse with a bullhorn and then complaining when it doesn’t work - at a certain point, you should probably just admit that you don’t really want to catch the mouse.
Toxic Masculinity, or poor mental and emotional health for men, whatever you want to call it, is an important issue. Whether you want to admit it or not, there is something of a identity crisis going on with men in the modern age - we don’t know who to be anymore. Do we be like Don Draper and fuck all the women, or do we be like Conan and crush the skulls of our enemies and then fuck all the women? Or do we play video games and jerk off to porn in our parents basements, complaining that women don’t pay us any attention? Or maybe we should wear skinny jeans, drink soy lattes and try to get her just drunk enough that we can escape the friendzone? The roles of men and women are changing, and have been for the past century, and we’re still unsure where we all want to land when things settle down. I don’t want to backhand my future missus for talking out of turn and then demand she make me a sandwich, but at the same time I don’t want her backhanding me either.
My old man used to travel the world and go on all sorts of crazy adventures for work, while mum stayed at home to raise my sister and I. He had all the money and he would dole it out to her, always asking what she wanted it for and nitpicking over every cent. Also, he was gone for so long so damn often, that it was awkward when he was home. The family wasn’t complete with dad home, there was just an extra person in the house… one you had to tiptoe around. He’s been gone for coming up on eight years now, and let me tell you that you don’t want to be the sort of person whose absence makes life easier.
I’m not saying he was the devil, far from it, and I’m sure as shit not saying that I’m a saint. I’m also not saying that I want to do the complete opposite to him and give my future missus all my money and have her dole it out to me instead. The opposite extreme is just as bad, it’s the same situation only in reverse. You don’t have to become a complete whimp, and reject everything that it means to be a man… that’s just asking for trouble. But there’s gotta be some smarter middle ground that can be found, where things work out for all involved.
This all stems back to my own book, Days Too Dark. I wanted a character that was so down on himself and wrapped up in his own shit that he didn’t realize how much harm he was causing himself and others. You can get so twisted up by the expectations of yourself and others that you become this warped shadow of what you’re meant to be, one that is… dare I say “toxic” to the surrounding world. That’s what I wanted to explore with Days Too Dark - a story about a man, for men. It’s only part one, so things are going to progress from there and without ruining things - obviously he learns the error of his ways, all for the betterment of others, but also for himself.
Men have the ability to fuck shit up when needed, we used to hunt and chase down wild game and fight off the warriors of enemy tribes. We can either use that strength to lift up those around us and make them feel safe and secure, or we can push them down and make them feel scared and weak. The thing is, we all die eventually and nobody is intimated by a corpse. If you’ve spent your whole life making those closest to you feel intimidated and afraid, they’ll breathe a sigh of relief once you’re gone and never have a nice word to say about you… if they ever speak of you at all.
Films like Den of Thieves are needed, because they analyse the male archetype in a way that men will find appealing. But if they’re always torn to shreds because they’re not more female-focused, then the message will never get across and the desired change will never be achieved. Everyone knows you get better results when you change things from the inside, rather that from the outside. You can get a show like Orange is the New Black to screech at men about how shit they are, or you can get a film like Den of Thieves to show them that there’s a better way of doing things... in a language and manner they’ll actually understand. Both have Pablo Schreiber in them, so take your pick.
“God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes,
'Cause then you really might know what it's like to sing the blues “