Testosterone drips off Christian Gudegast’s cops-and-robbers thriller that has all the phony authenticity of its Atlanta locations pretending to be Los Angeles. Co-stars Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber, playing alpha dogs on opposite sides of the law, seem to be competing for which of them can be the most bulked-up, macho badass onscreen. The loser is the audience for Den of Thieves, an over-the-top crime saga mainly indicating that its writer-director has seen Michael Mann’s Heat too many times.
There could well be a run on Southern California banks as a result of the onscreen graphics informing us that a bank robbery occurs in Los Angeles every 48 minutes and that the city is the “bank robbery capital of the world.” One might expect that the opening sequence would depict such a robbery, but instead it involves a heist of an armored truck by a very well-armed gang of thieves by its leader Ray Merriman (Schreiber) and cohorts including Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and Bosco (Evan Jones). Despite the crooks’ military precision, there are fatalities on both sides.
Hot on the case is the Major Crimes unit of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, led by “Big Nick” Flanagan (Butler). Surveying the scene while taking a drag on a cigarette and helping himself to a doughnut from a box on the ground, Nick somberly intones, “We’re dealing with a different animal here, boys.”
And how. Merriman and several members of his crew have military backgrounds and they seem to possess extensive inside information about their next target, the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve. The gang also has a secret weapon in the form of Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a genial bartender with the skills of a race-car driver.
This is the sort of film that makes you long for the days when criminals simply committed crimes and cops tried to stop them. Instead, there’s a convoluted cat-and-mouse game between the two main characters that defies explication, let alone credibility. Nick pressures Donnie to turn informant and then greets him effusively at a restaurant right in front of Merriman and his men. Then Nick and Merriman wind up shooting at the same firing range. They don’t exchange a word, but after Merriman leaves, Nick eyes his perfectly shot-up target admiringly. Finally, Merriman returns home to his wife, only to discover a half-dressed Nick getting ready to leave.
It’s this sort of baroque plotting that undermines the film and stretches it out to a numbing 140 minutes. The attempts to add psychological depth to the main characters prove ludicrous, whether it’s Nick’s cliched marital problems or Enson using the gang to terrify the prom date of his teenage daughter. To the film’s credit, the inevitable scene set in a strip club doesn’t take place until well past the one-hour mark.
Even more ludicrous are such plot machinations as Merriman’s gang taking hostages at a bank, apparently meant to distract the cops, and the climactic heist that goes on so long and proves so convoluted it feels more like Topkapi. Finally, there’s a twist ending that makes the one in The Usual Suspects seem credible by comparison.
Gudegast, making his directorial debut (he was one of the screenwriters of Butler’s action vehicle London Has Fallen), certainly knows how to move the camera around and stages the action sequences for maximum impact. Butler and Schreiber manage to deliver compelling performances despite their characters’ stereotypical attributes. But despite its technical gloss and effective performances, Den of Thieves never manages to feel other than hopelessly derivative.
Production: Diamond Films Productions, G-BASE, Tucker Tooley Entertainment
Distributor: STX Films
Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Brian Van Holt, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson III, Evan Jones, Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau, Moe McRae, Maurice Compte
Director: Christian Gudegast
Screenwriters: Christian Gudegast, Paul Scheuring
Producers: Gerard Butler, Tucker Tooley, Mark Canton, Alan Siegel
Executive producers: Scott Lumpkin, Jamie Marshall, Glenn D. Feig
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Kara Linstrom
Editor: Joel Cox
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Costume designer: Terry Anderson
Casting: John Papsidera
Rated R. 140 min.