FILM REVIEW – DEN OF THIEVES. With Gerard Butler, Jordan Bridges, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., 50 Cent. Written and directed by Christian Gudegast. Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. 140 minutes.
Having written a few action films, including the Gerard Butler vehicle “London Has Fallen” (2016), Christian Gudegast makes his directorial debut with DEN OF THIEVES, a bank heist film that gives Butler an especially meaty role. Even as you anticipate what will happen, Gudegast proves to be one step ahead of the audience. It’s a fast-paced crime drama that doesn’t feel overlong at nearly two-and-a-half hours.
We’re told from the outset that Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the world. We see the hijacking of an armored truck in the early hours of the morning that turns violent. This brings it to the attention of the Major Crimes unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, headed by Nick Flanagan (Butler). With his unshaven and blotchy look and clothes that always look like he slept in them, Nick isn’t fooling when he threatens a suspect by pointing out that he and his men are the “bad guys.” Sure, they’re fighting crime, but they’re also fighting the L.A.P.D. and the FBI.
The hijacking was carried out with military precision, even to the point that while they brutally killed the uniformed guards, they pointedly let a civilian witness live. This leads Nick to Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), an Iraqi vet and ex-con whose gang boasts similar credentials. Their goal is an audacious one: to rob the Los Angeles outpost of the Federal Reserve. There’s a good deal of cat-and-mouse tactics along the way, with Nick trying to flip Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), one of Merriman’s underlings.
Gudegast pads out the story a bit with a few scenes bringing out the personal lives of a few of the characters, particularly the breakdown of Nick’s marriage. His grief at the separation from his young daughters is played off against one of Merriman’s men making it clear to his daughter’s prom date how she will be treated, but these scenes are really not necessary. Once Merriman is ready to put his elaborate plan in action, it’s the details of the robbery and its aftermath that is our focus.
As the rival leaders, Butler and Schreiber are a good match, each showing a respect for the skills of the other even as they struggle to come out on top. The person to watch though is Jackson, who is the son of rapper Ice Cube and who had a memorable acting debut actually playing his father in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015). As the seeming pawn caught between the two sides, he gets to play the widest range, including a key role in the robbery.
Behind the camera, Gudegast keeps things moving. We can follow the complex details of the robbery, but he can also distract us when he wants to hold something in reserve. As for the action set pieces, the car chase/shootout that is the climax of the film should satisfy genre fans while allowing for a few character driven moments in the midst of the carnage. “Den of Thieves” won’t make any ten best lists next year, but as a midwinter entry to rev the engines, it satisfies.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.