Christian Gudegast, writer of A Man Apart (2003) and London Has Fallen (2016), makes his directorial debut with Den of Thieves, and it’s everything he’s been building toward as a creator of generic, testosterone-driven crime dramas that offer nothing new.
Gerard Butler stars as Los Angeles cop Nick Flanagan. Since he’s an L.A. cop over the age of 40 in a movie, you may assume he’s disheveled, hungover, and going through a divorce. Remember the TV show The Shield? Flanagan and his crew are a lot like Vic Mackey’s hard-partying, legally questionable strike team, right down to the leader being the only interesting one. They stumble across what they think might be a crew of bank robbers led by one Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), and they think that this team might be responsible for a string of unsolved “highly sophisticated, well-executed heists.”
The cops are right about that, which we know because this is a cops and robbers story, about both sides. Merrimen’s crew includes Levi (50 Cent), Bosco (Evan Jones), and Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who all lead normal lives except for the bank robbing. Donnie, an ex-con working as a bartender, gets grabbed up by Flanagan’s team and pressured for info about what Merrimen and company are up to. From that point on, however, the movie keeps us in the dark about how much Donnie is compromised, how much he really knows, and how much of an advantage the police have over the criminals.
This is all fine material for a heist movie, and Den of Thieves eventually becomes a reasonably entertaining one. Butler is negligible, but Pablo Schreiber and O’Shea Jackson Jr. give strong, charismatic performances as the multi-layered criminals. But it’s hindered by two things. One is the dialogue, which Gudegast co-wrote with Paul Scheuring and which is lazily peppered with repetitive macho posturing. There’s a lot of this:
“F*** me? No, f*** YOU!”
It’s also the sort of movie where the rogue cops tell the crooks, “You’re not the bad guys. We’re the bad guys.” Again, the feeling this most strongly inspires is an urge to re-watch The Shield.
The film is also hurt by delusions of gravity, spending too much time — which is to say, any time at all — on Flanagan’s personal life, on inter-department squabbling between him and the FBI, and on team-building camaraderie among the thieves. There’s a scene where 50 Cent has his criminal friends get together to scare his daughter’s prom date — amusing as far as it goes, but completely pointless. It’s the sort of vignette you include when you’re doing a whole season of a cops-and-robbers TV show but that you omit when you’re trying to tell a single story in one movie.
When we get to the day of the Big Heist, the movie’s been on for 70 minutes … and it’s only half-over. Slick, twisty fun ensues, but a 30-minute trim would have made the whole enterprise much more recommendable.
Eric D. Snider plans to rob the Armenian money train in Portland.