Cops and robbers, robbers and cops. It’s a classic genre, from children’s games to cinema, and it’s the spine of Christian Gudegast’s directorial debut, the L.A. crime noir flick “Den of Thieves,” in which “cops and robbers” is writ so large it nearly becomes abstract.
It’s a film that wears its inspirations openly, with a whole lot of “Training Day,” “Rampart,” “The Usual Suspects” and “Inside Man” in the mix. With excellent cinematic craftsmanship and some clever twists, “Den of Thieves” nearly places itself within that canon, even when it’s too enamored of its own trickiness.
Gudegast does pull off the (nearly) impossible — making a hefty two-hour, 20-minute heist film riveting. He is aided in that task with juiced-up performances by Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber, who play the cop and the robber, respectively. Both are in total beast mode, jacked up and hulked out, ready to pop off at a moment’s notice. Their agitated energy provides a palpable sense of danger.
Butler’s Big Nick, a sheriff’s detective in the major crimes unit, squares off against Schreiber’s Merrimen, a local felon just out of prison, planning a hit on the L.A. Federal Reserve branch with a crew of dudes he knows from the Marines, the clink and Long Beach high school football.
The plot follows the parallel stories of the cop in pursuit of the robber, demonstrating they’re more alike than not. The loose-cannon Nick behaves more like the gangsters than a cop. Before we even know his name, the hungover detective munches on a doughnut plucked from a bloodied box, dropped by the victim of a violent armored-truck robbery staged by Merrimen, a precise and prepared former soldier.
While the pace is methodical and steady, Gudegast establishes great tension throughout, using careful reveals and systematic storytelling. Although he excels in withholding and revealing information, there’s some fussy geographical over-explanation, with obsessive titles designating every place. There’s no need to establish that the Benihana where Nick and Merrimen chop it up is in Torrance, or if they drove from Gardena to Hawthorne. It’s an unnecessary distraction, especially while you ponder why anyone in downtown L.A. would order Chinese food from Monterey Park in the middle of the day.
“Den of Thieves” feels like a throwback crime tale, but some of its traits could have been left in the past, like the totally outdated and frankly misogynistic depictions of women as harried wives, innocent daughters or strippers — simply motivation for the men, not actual people. The female characters are so underwritten they should have just been cut, letting the film focus on the gender dynamics of the extreme, testosterone-fueled masculinity on display.
Gudegast, who wrote the script with Paul Scheuring, is concerned very much with the hows but not so much the whys. For the sake of the storytelling, some crucial details are kept too close, like why Merrimen ultimately commits these crimes. He’s desperate, unpredictable and driven to extremes, including unloading a machine gun into standstill traffic (thanks for the new phobia, by the way), but we never know why he does what he does.
The fun surprise of “Den of Thieves” is that while Butler and Schreiber thrash and gnash, O’Shea Jackson Jr. quietly and competently walks away with the whole movie as young bartender Donnie, swept up in the job as a driver and caught between these two bulls.
Gudegast’s twisty, turny tale of heists and homies is an action-packed romp with a good sense of humor and self-awareness. It’s rendered with a startling attention to detail, but one has to wonder if with that detail, he can’t quite see the forest for the trees.
‘Den of Thieves’
Rating: R, for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: In general release