Den of Thieves

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/23/18 07:33:26

"Just another long, would-be epic heist."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

140 minutes long, this thing is, and that doesn't even include the line from the trailer about the crew being addicted to heists. What the heck is up with that? Sure, sometimes a moment that can seem too on-the-nose in the film can be great for selling it, but other times it can seem like a clear sign that the movie won't just get to the point, and that's the case here. "Den of Thieves" is a thriller that spends a lot of time screwing around but not much actually thrilling.

It starts off promising enough, with a well-organized crew robbing an armored car with overwhelming force when it stops at a donut shop, at least until one of the guards twitches wrong and a shootout begins. "Big Nick" O'Brien (Gerard Butler) of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's Major Crimes Squad catches the case, finding it odd that a team as well-organized as this one seemed to be wouldn't know the van they stole was empty. Still, he recognizes the style as that of Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), an ex-Marine whose recent time in prison corresponded to a drop in the number elaborate robberies like this. Surveillance footage leads them to Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), a bartender with a couple of auto-related convictions whose fear of a third strike should get him to inform and allow Nick's crew to catch Merrimen's in the act. But Donnie says they keep him out of the loop until game day, which means they don't know Merrimen's target is the insanely-secure Federal Reserve building.

There are a bunch of other characters floating around - a pretty generic bunch, all sowle and shaggy and tattooed in the same way - but those three are the only ones of any consequence, and ideally they'd be more than enough. Gerard Butler is, admittedly, pretty good as a dirtbag cop, unpretentiously smart and casual in his entitlement. Nick's the guy you're kind of rooting for by default, and Butler makes sure that he doesn't seem particularly righteous but also never particularly burdened by guilt, he snaps crude lines off to show he's quick-witted but not exactly deep. O'Shea Jackson Junior looks like he could be a bigger star than his dad, showing an easy charm and able to play Donnie as realizing he's in over his head but still pushing through on confidence. It's not particularly Pablo Schreiber's fault that his third leg of this troika, Merrimen, is pretty much a non-entity - the script by director Christopher Gudegast and Paul Scheuring gives him even less than his co-stars - but he really doesn't project any sort of consistent personality at all. The movie needs a master thief, but Merrimen never seems compulsive or greedy or bored and only excited by planning a tricky operation.

Maybe he did in some early cut; there's a lot of weird decisions about what to leave in and what to take out here. The bit with Nick's marriage falling apart, for instance, is compete boilerplate, the sort of thing that highlights the film's similarities to Heat (and a thousand other cops-and-robbers movies) but also points up that Gerard Butler is no Al Pacino. Same goes for a scene where the crooks opt to scare the prom date one of their daughters - it's the one time they come across as anything other than guys inserted to serve a function, and it's boring, a scene the audience has seen dozens of times before. Meanwhile, it doesn't seem like the cops ever actually figure out that the plan is to rob the Federal Reserve, not quite catching up with the robbers at random, but never connecting the dots. It's a chance for Gudegast to make the cops either as clever as the robbers or a contrasting brute force compared to their cunning, and he just up and skips it.

Meanwhile, the film winds up boring, paying attention to all the wrong details. Sometimes it's actively confusing, like captioning both character introductions and Los Angeles neighborhoods (I legitimately thought one scene took place in a town called "Merrimen" until the cops started referring to him as a person). Other times, it seems like accidental misdirection, in how they never actually have the guy established as a great diver actually driving a getaway car; what's the point of showing what sort of bobbing and weaving he can do early on, in that case? The movie climaxes on a crazy shootout where it quickly becomes clear there are too many minor characters and the irony of both sides being so similar visually just winds up making the action more confusing than need be. And, of course, there's one last twist that makes an already stupidly complicated plan with a whole lot of points of failure even more so.

Once that's all done, what's left is a movie that has a couple decent performances, one or two fair bits of action, and a whole ton of filler that can't help remind one of tighter, better movies. It's clear that Gudegast had visions of making the ultimate L.A. bank-robbery movie, but he wound up just making another one, and one that doesn't necessarily include the good bits rather than the boring ones.

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