Den of Thieves wants so desperately to be Michael Mann’s now classic 1995 crime thriller, Heat, that you can almost see first-time director Christian Gudegast referring back to the Mann film on his iPad as he putters around the set of this film, with star Gerard Butler constantly glowering over his shoulder to see how Al Pacino did it. But the hulking, permanently disheveled Butler is no Pacino, Gudegast, the screenwriter of such previous gems as London Has Fallen and A Man Apart, is no Mann, and Den of Thieves is decidedly no Heat.
The structure of this picture, which Gudegast also penned himself, is basically the same as that of Mann: a team of elite cops from the Major Crimes Unit of the Sheriff’s department–the Regulators– goes head to head with a crew of criminals who have been pulling off high-tech heists around town for several years. Known as the Outlaws and led by cool-as-dry-ice Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), the robbers use techniques and discipline learned in both military special ops and prison to take down their marks.
Leading the ostensible good guys is Butler’s “Big Nick” O’Brien, whose penchant for spending what little time he has off-duty in bars and strip clubs has all but destroyed his home life with his wife and daughters. Nick is loud, perpetually angry, prone to impulsive action, and partial to getting in the face of cops from other divisions, which makes him the stock loose cannon who the rest of his team can only haplessly follow and hope he doesn’t get them killed.
After an armored truck heist goes wrong and ends up with several cops and guards dead, the Regulators grab Merriman’s driver, Donnie Wilson (an intense O’Shea Jackson from Straight Outta Compton), and not-so-gently recruit him as their mole inside Merriman’s operation. The latter, for reasons known only to him, has decided not to lay low after the last job got botched but instead plans to knock over the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve and steal $30 million that’s due to be taken out of circulation.
Why that money is being removed from the system, and Merriman’s reasons and techniques for stealing it, are just some of the many ways in which Gudegast overcomplicates his plot, perhaps in an attempt to make up for its shortcomings in narrative structure and character development. But a needlessly labyrinthine scheme is almost the least of the problems Den of Thieves has. Its biggest setback is its star, who comes across as a complete asshole from start to finish.
Unlike Pacino’s Vincent Hanna in Heat, Butler’s O’Brien doesn’t agonize for very long over the fact that his spouse is getting the hell out of the house and taking their daughters with her. He’s served divorce papers in a parking garage in front of his team and shrugs it off with a “guess I’m getting divorced,” while the others nod and grimace in sympathy. Before his family disappears from the film completely, he drunkenly confronts his wife at a friend’s house and visits his daughter–who looks terrified–in her schoolyard (if I was the teacher, I’d be calling the cops about the scary-looking man at the fence). Not exactly the best way to reconnect with your loved ones, I wager.
But his boorish behavior doesn’t just end with the people he theoretically cares for the most. For no good reason, he blows Wilson’s cover in a pointless restaurant confrontation, then goes to the same shooting range where Merriman takes practice just so they can stare menacingly at each other. These scenes not only serve no purpose, but they jack up the film’s testosterone levels to the edge of self-parody. In an even greater act of stupidity later in the film, O’Brien initiates a shootout–all-out urban warfare, actually–in the middle of a traffic jam on a packed Los Angeles boulevard with dozens of hapless drivers trapped in their cars between this moronic lawman and his nominally smarter target.
But that’s Den of Thieves: long (140 minutes), full of noise and fury (Gudegast makes you feel every high-powered round of ammo fired from every assault weapon), and signifying nothing much except the masculine urge to destroy. Heat brought the firepower just as readily and terrifyingly, but provided a psychological backdrop to the proceedings and delved into the characters on both sides, creating a fascinating yin-yang tension between the two. Here Gudegast’s idea of character development is to have Outlaw member Enson (Curtis Jackson) threaten the boy who’s taking his daughter to the prom by intimidating him in a room full of thugs. Between scenes like this and Butler bellowing like a wounded bull, Den of Thieves feels like it’s trying to bully you into submission when it’s not boring you.
Den of Thieves is out in theaters on Friday, Jan. 19.