In our current slew of 2½-star movies (seriously, everything's in the middle this week), "Den of Thieves" rates as the most curious tug-of-war, yanked back and forth between what works and what doesn't. It's a sidewinding but often suprisingly effective LA crime thriller. It's also saddled with the wrong leading man.
Then again, I often think of Gerard Butler as the wrong leading man. This may have some bearing on my reaction here. The quality of merciless mediocrities such as "The Ugly Truth" or "London Has Fallen" does not help. But over time, no doubt encouraged by the popularity of those and other vehicles, Butler has morphed into a weirdly un-root-for-able presence in action movies as well as romantic comedies. (Many disagree. I disagree with those who disagree.) Even with that rich, Scots-tinged voice, the actor struggles to modulate his air of soccer-hooligan arrogance, his twitchy, surly smugness, no matter what the role.
It's particularly noticeable in writer-director Christian Gudegast's feature, because the actor is playing a gangsta-style law enforcement anti-hero who gives Mickey Rourke in "Year of the Dragon" a run for the money for sheer repellence.
Butler's character, "Big Nick" Flanagan, heads a subset of LA County Sheriff's Department specialists in the Major Crimes division. They torture suspects with impunity (though the victims are guilty, of course), hang out at strip clubs (the women's roles in "Den of Thieves" couldn't be more irrelevant or dismissive; #TimesUp, indeed). Then, when the time comes, they suit up for the war-zone requirements of their murderously dangerous jobs in LA, the bank-robbery capital of the world, as we're told in the opening crawl.
"Den of Thieves" rips several hundred pages out of the Michael Mann "Heat" playbook. Pablo Schreiber ("Orange is the New Black") plays Merrimen, one of several ex-military criminals planning to boost several million in unmarked bills from the allegedly impenetrable U.S. Federal Reserve Bank. Merrimen's crew includes roles filled by 50 Cent and, as the movie's most sympathetic element, bartender-turned-getaway-driver Donnie. O'Shea Jackson Jr. portrays him, and as Donnie gets in deeper and deeper as Big Nick's reluctant mole and source of information, the performance develops some intriguing wrinkles. Jackson Jr. ("Straight Outta Compton") is very good. So is Schreiber.
So is virtually everybody, in fact, except the overactor in the middle of the slowly intertwining narratives. Conceived more than a decade ago, there's a macho-posturing throwback air to "Den of Thieves," thrown even further back by writer-director Gudegast's devotion to the leisurely pacing of Mann's "Heat." The film buys into the genre concept of honor, even valor, among thieves and their pursuers. The cops are dirty and proud of it; "we're the bad guys," Butler seethes to Jackson Jr. early on.
Compared to the clodhopping ugliness of the action scenes in "London Has Fallen," "Den of Thieves" at least knows how to put a violent shootout together with some exciting coherence. The opening parking lot shootout and the climactic highway traffic jam melee reveal Gudegast to be proficient at staging and framing action, with bullets raining everywhere.
That said: I've had it with movies drooling over weaponry and making sweet love to the NRA's killing machine of the month in sweet close-up. I've had it with the Big Nicks of the contemporary action movie realm, characters whose bully-boy personae, goading homophobia and airs of slobby entitlement are all taken for granted. On the other hand, the conversations and expository bits in "Den of Thieves" take their time in fruitful ways, letting the behavior of both the cops and the thieves percolate naturally.
These come close, at least, to justifying an extremely generous 140-minute running time. I did, however, recoil at the reunion between Big Nick and his estranged elementary school-age daughter, whom he calls "Pookie," on the school playground. The scene's meant to humanize Butler's character, but I was already on Team Criminal by this time — if only because the understated menace of Schreiber's performance outwits the showboating aggravations of Butler's.
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.
'Den of Thieves' -- 2.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)
Running time: 2:20
Opens: Thursday evening
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