Mark Reviews Movies

Den of Thieves


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Christian Gudegast

Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Mo McRae, Evan Jones, Jordan Bridges, Brian Van Holt, Kaiwi Lyman, Maurice Compte, Dawn Olivieri, Cooper Andrews

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 2:20

Release Date: 1/19/18

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 18, 2018

Den of Thieves tells a story of generically bad cops and fundamentally bland robbers. It's set in Los Angeles, "the bank robbery capital of the world," according to the movie's opening text. Writer/director Christian Gudegast provides a strange but telling quirk in his filmmaking. The major characters are introduced with titles on the screen, and so, too, are the various neighborhoods of L.A., as the cops and robbers move over the course of, respectively, their investigation and planning.

In a (perhaps unintentional) way, Gudegast essentially gives the characters and the city itself equal standing in the movie's expository cues. The result, though, is that we might learn more about the city—its specific locales and the wide gap of socioeconomic standing among them—than we do about the characters.

It's an old and meaningless cliché, but it really does appear that Gudegast (making his directorial debut) wants us to see L.A. as another character in the movie. Why else would he be so specific in his documentation of where we're at as the story progresses? Why else would he select such a diverse range of locations?

That's one of the movie's strengths, though. The L.A. of this movie doesn't feel like a movie location, selected for its atmosphere and shot with a general look in mind. It looks and feels like the real place that it is—filled with skyscrapers in the downtown area, with well-kept homes and businesses in the well-to-do neighborhoods, with abandoned industrial structures and rundown apartment building in the impoverished zones.

There's nothing romantic about Gudegast's portrayal of L.A., even though the story he's telling is one of age-old melodrama. It's about the intersections between a group of men working to uphold the law and another group working to break it. The twist of sorts is that the cops, a team within the Major Crimes Division of the L.A. Sheriff's Department, are the bad guys here.

They're not the villains, though, because Gudegast basically gives the cops and robbers an equal footing in the movie's protagonist-antagonist dynamic (They're both the protagonists, in that the movie doesn't take sides, and they're both the antagonists in relation to each other). They're just bad guys on fundamental, moral level—abducting suspects, torturing them, threatening to kill them, and apparently having followed through on those threats in the past.

They're led by "Big" Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler), a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, problem-with-authority, wise-cracking, alcoholic, and chain-smoking cop who admits to running his team like a street gang. He's also a philanderer, which gives the movie an excuse to show his "human" side when his wife (played by Dawn Olivieri) takes their daughters and leaves him. There's a shot of him sobbing in his car after visiting one of his daughters at her school. Otherwise, he's a broadly tough customer, and his team unquestionably goes along with his extralegal methods of tracking and taking down criminals.

The criminal team is led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), who was recently released from prison and has come up with a plan to rob the local branch of the Federal Reserve. It involves an armored truck, a separate heist at a regular bank, a series of fake-outs, and a string of perfectly timed maneuvers inside and outside the Federal Reserve building—before, during, and after the heist—that are as much the result of luck as they are good planning.

Most of the story, though, takes place before the robbery, as the robbers plan it and the cops try to figure out what's going to happen. Nick and his team catch a break when they capture Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), the criminal crew's driver, who has the fear of a third felony strike over his head.

Gudegast's screenplay is primarily concerned with giving Nick a bunch of scenes in which he acts like a jerk to his superiors, the criminals, his wife, and pretty much anyone else who appears in his line of sight. As for the robbers, the screenplay mostly gives them a bunch of scenes in which they detail their plan in vague terms, so that we're catching up with how elaborate that plan is while it's being perpetrated.

There's a simplicity of focus here that's admirable, because it keeps the plot moving forward, even though it's often spinning its wheels until the big plan. We're not rooting for any of these characters (except, perhaps, Donnie, who seems fated to receive the brunt of the cops and criminals' worst methods for no particular reason), but we're not rooting against them, either.

That seems to be Gudegast's point, and in a way, then, he has achieved his goal. A lot of that success, though, is simply because he hasn't given us actual characters. These men—on both sides—are caricatures at most or faces at least. Their motives are basic (The cops want to catch the criminals, and the robbers want money and to avoid prison), simply existing so that the plot's existence is justified. We don't have a reason to root for or against any of the characters in Den of Thieves, and that leads to a more fundamental question about the movie: What's the point?

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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