‘Den of Thieves’ Features Big Names but Little Action

Den of Thieves” borrows nearly every cliché you have seen in every heist movie ever made, but the effort is for not. This is a curious case of a bland movie made with some real talent. The casting is decent, the cinematography efficient, but the script and pacing are way off the mark. This movie isn’t about anything except placing characters into recycled situations where they have no purpose other than to just be there and mope, punch someone, fire a weapon and try to steal some cash. Don’t get me wrong, a genre movie that delivers on its basic aims always has some merit (I even gave a pass to “Insidious: The Last Key”), but this movie feels like it has the ingredients but delivers them in a hollow style that borders on that word fatal to any movie: Boring. Little is fleshed out and we feel there are chapters missing.

Gerard Butler plays Nick Flanagan, a dark glasses-wearing, tattooed loud mouth who runs a secretive police unit he calls “The Regulators,” which if based on truth means Los Angeles officially has paramilitary groups operating in the city (“We don’t take you in, we just shoot you”). Flanagan and his team are not above kidnapping and beating suspects to get information. Flanagan’s latest hard case involves a heist crew pulling off bank robberies. The leader of the crew, Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), is planning a big score with his fellow robbers which include Levi (50 Cent), Bosco (Evan Jones) and their driver, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Their target is the Federal Reserve, in particular a specific amount of money that goes through a special processing system. While Flanagan tries to grab the crew before they can pull of their scheme, he has to deal with typical movie cop problems. He drinks too much, hangs out with one too many strippers, and gets left by his wife (Dawn Olivieri).

“Den of Thieves” starts off promisingly, with an atmospheric heist scene reminiscent of Michael Mann films like “Heat” and “Thief.” Director Christian Gudegast, who here marks his directorial debut after writing a string of action movies including “A Man Apart” and “London Has Fallen,” basks in the technical details of weapons and floor plans, while convincingly staging the film’s better moments. You get the sense he rehearsed a lot with the actors playing security guards, they never strike a single false note. The world he creates for these characters is all testosterone. Gudegast likes to linger on their tats or when they’re lifting weights, Flanagan even has a big weight lifting set in his office. The movie isn’t based much on what police work is actually like, it’s instead a fanboy of all those tough guy cop movies.

But Gudegast doesn’t let his story breathe or develop. He tries to pack an array of characters and schemes into a mere 1 hour and 20 minutes. Most of the characters simply convey stereotypes and are used in quick, sometimes empty scenes which feel like half the story. Consider 50 Cent’s character, Levi. He’s barely in the movie to the point where we don’t really know what his role is in the heist crew. He only has one, funny scene where he and the other bank robbers intimidate the guy taking Levi’s daughter to the prom. His dialogue is so sparse as to be forgettable, and this is quite the marquee name. By the time the big heist gets going the film cuts from one stage to another, without explaining (at least clearly) how someone got into a case of money, how such a small crew funds its complex, well-armed operations (they don’t live luxuriously), or how in the world they suddenly have a vast tunnel system to use.

The best heist films, like “Heat,” never miss a beat in crafting the world of their characters and the details of their plans. Gudegast wants to create the kind of patient, atmospheric pace of a Mann movie, but his material isn’t rich enough to avoid feeling like it drags. Even the typical personal issues, like Flanagan being dumped by his wife, just happen. We get the idea his wife is tired of him spending his time with strippers, which he explains as necessary role play for his job. But why he needs a group of hookers in a hotel room where he’s interrogating a suspect is not something the movie ever bothers to logically explain. I suppose it’s Gudegast’s way of framing The Regulators as bad boys.

Like the films of David Ayer, the vision here is bleak and mean. Flanagan barks back at everyone, intimidating his ex’s date, cussing out FBI agents, choke-holding suspects, it’s a wonder Gudegast doesn’t include the classic scene where the rowdy cop gets chewed out by a superior. Butler plays the role convincingly with a growling voice. Pablo Schreiber pulls off the look well of a street thug, but he isn’t given much to work with because the film just rushes along without letting him become anything more. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is quite likeable as the driver Donnie, who gets picked up one night by Flanagan for a violent interrogation. He has charm, and shows he has range after his breakthrough in “Straight Outa Compton.”

If the cast and crew of “Den of Thieves” reunites with a stronger, longer movie, there is no doubt it would be worth seeing. There is talent in this movie, but the execution betrays the promise. A great heist movie is riveting, a good one entertaining, this one is well-shot, but the story gets lost somewhere along the way. It’s like blasting open the shiny bank vault and finding nothing there.

Den of Thieves” opens Jan. 19 in theaters nationwide.