Crime and punishment duke it out on the gritty streets of Los Angeles in Christian Gudegast’s “Den of Thieves.” Despite the kitschy title, the bulk of Gudegast’s debut operates like a master’s thesis for the Michael Mann school of the action thriller. Razor-sharp editing, sparse use of music, intricate gunfight choreography and deafening sound design return the genre to elegant form. Like any fan of the Mann, Gudegast stretches his heist plot to reveal the humanity behind the violence. Ambitious yet shooting off more than the cartridge allows, “Den of Thieves” loses propulsion midway from an overkill of buildup.
Perennial action movie headliner, Gerard Butler, plays a merciless alcoholic sheriff who’s head of the L.A.P.D. “Major Crimes” unit. With a haggard and unruly appearance, Butler is unrecognizable as the morally bankrupt Nick O’Brien. A philandering husband and father whose domestic life is justly collapsing, O’Brien channels his rage upon his team’s newest case. Following a shootout between masked men and police officers outside a doughnut shop in Gardena, it’s discovered that this skilled group of assailants stole an empty armored truck for future use.
Based on the sophistication of the grand theft auto, O’Brien surmises it could be recently paroled Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) and his team of outlaws. The group has been linked to past unsolved robberies, so this time O’Brien is determined to end their successful bandit streak. Members of Merrimen’s elite criminal force include fellow ex-marine Levi (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.).
Given his cultural stature, 50 Cent is surprisingly underutilized. Other than a hilarious moment sending his daughter off to prom and a heartfelt interaction near the end, the megastar rapper-turned-actor is little more than a glorified henchman. Meanwhile, Donnie is underwritten to the detriment of the narrative. None of O’Shea Jackson’s onscreen charisma from “Straight Outta Compton” traveled to his next big feature. Jackson’s emotionally vacant performance style can be attributed to poor direction and an intentional avoidance of personality in the script. With a convoluted twist-ending that aims to shock rather than diligently earn, only Schreiber benefits from Gudegast and “Prison Break” creator Paul Scheuring’s co-authored screenplay.
Pablo Schreiber is a future Oscar winner if he continues to transform into roles so effortlessly. Less showy than Christian Bale but equally committed, Schreiber fascinates with every frame of quiet intensity exuded. Bulking up and adding a menacing layer of meticulousness to his criminality, Schreiber etches nuance from a presumed stereotype. Merrimen is destined to be a standout movie villain from 2018. He has a backstory but doesn’t use it as a crutch for justifying what he wants. There’s also a higher degree of respect that Merrimen pays to individuals than do-gooder O’Brien. Contrasting the two men’s code of conduct leads to unexpected audience empathy. Regardless of which side of the law they stand on, moviegoers will find themselves secretly rooting for the better human being of the two.
In total, “Den of Thieves” contains enough cleverly orchestrated action to appease genre diehards. Complex heist sequences that drag a few minutes longer than necessary will make attention spans wane. However, the climactic gunfight expertly filmed by cinematographer Terry Stacey pulsates the senses to cinematic pleasure, making the chore of arriving to such blissful mayhem almost worth it. Perhaps the biggest original takeaway is that there’s no cliche “one last job” motivation behind the main heist. Ultimately, “Den of Thieves” proves that where there is an opportunity for power, there’s no such thing as an innocent man.
“Den of Thieves” is distributed by STX Entertainment and releases nationwide on January 19th.