The bank robbery/heist movie has been made, broken down, and rebuilt about as many times as you could count. Den of Thieves believes it has something to add to the proceedings with its crass tale of brotherhood among thugs and dirty cops. Take a crack at its vulgar veneer and you’ll find something without an identity, incredibly hollow and constructed by years of genre tropes. Despite it being overall well-acted, director Christian Gudegast’s first feature is a trite and overlong retread that can’t stand on its own two feet, so it shoots and swears to keep you from realizing that. The Michael Mann references you may have read in other reviews aren’t lost on this critic, but that kind of does a disservice to a much better and much more interesting filmmaker. This is Mann stripped of all emotional and physical economy, down to a barebones game of cops and robbers.
Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) has a particular set of skills learned from many stints in jail and deep knowledge of how banks work. Between him, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Levi (50 Cent), and Bosco (Evan Jones), he’s got the perfect plan to rob the most impenetrable building in the country: The Federal Reserve Bank in Los Angeles. Nick “Big Nick” Flanagan (Gerard Butler) is the renegade cop tasked with taking Merrimen and his merry men (Ha!) down for good. His hard drinking and philandering estranges his wife and kids, so he puts that rage to good use to take down the thieves. But who are the real criminals: the ones robbing the bank of cash put out of circulation or the cops using criminal tactics to catch them? This is just one of the boilerplate questions the film wants you to ponder.
Gerard Butler is in top form here. He’s usually shifted off to be the emotionless hero, as in Geostorm and those damn Olympus Has Fallen movies. In this, he gets to chew scenery as an anti-hero. His performance takes great interest in not exactly supporting or rationalizing everything that Nick Flanagan does to get the bad guys. His family background that wrecks him emotionally eventually becomes background noise to the heist plot, but that’s also because that plot is much more interesting.
If anything, Gudegast is fairly good at setting things up for the big score. Articles have been written about the writer-director’s intense studying of the Federal Reserve Bank and that shows here, but aren’t the best heist movies more interested in their characters than the actual score? Sure, the big heist has the ability to throw off an adrenaline rush but that’s kind of the last thing I remember about films like this. And Gudegast is no great writer, but he gets points for almost taking things in a different direction.
To bring up Den of Thieves’s failings is to bring up what could have been. There’s this scene where 50 Cent decides to scare his daughter’s high school prom date by introducing him to his cohorts, a gang of beastly and tattooed walking muscle sculptures. This is the kind of sequence seemingly ripped from a movie that takes time and effort to set up its central cast as somewhat of a family unit. Den of Thieves does not do this, so it falls flat. But it brings up something that can potentially be interesting: If we’re to believe the gang of thieves is comprised of a tight-knit group of friends, then how does this life change their normal lives? Do they have a normal life? From what we see here, they’re just criminals with a little bit of compassion. After all, Merrimen does scare one of his cohorts by getting a vat of hydrofluoric acid ready for his body’s disposal.
Butler’s Nick Flanagan flaunts his tattoos that reads that he’s one of “The Regulators.” It’s his unit of unconventional cops that do unconventional things and get unconventional results. They don’t just play dirty; they are dirty. By heightening the trope of the cop that stops at nothing to stop his mark, Den of Thieves ends up being more mundane. And the final twist that turns the whole plot on its head? It’s cheap and shows that Gudegast cares much more for usurping the audience by tricks rather than fleshing out the characters he uses as pawns.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. It’s January and why should I be expecting anything really that great in the theaters. Split and Get Out released in the first couple of months of 2017, so that theory doesn’t really hold. At least we know now that Butler’s career hasn’t been a complete fluke. The guy still has work to put out, if only someone could give him the right script.