As writer-director Christian Gudegast told The Wrap, Den of Thieves has languished in development limbo since 2004, when the first words of the script were initially penned by the London Has Fallen scribe. Time has not been kind to Gudegast’s film: Den of Thieves is such a dumb misunderstanding of the genres in which it plays, such a loud, interminable shart of unmitigated machismo, such a heavy-handed rip-off of Heat and The Usual Suspects and even Ocean’s Eleven (and maybe even The Fast and the Furious, but for scumbags) that it feels anachronistic on arrival, the kind of melodramatic, pulpy studio action flick that doesn’t get made anymore because it shouldn’t.
Gudegast spends 30 of the film’s 130 miserably maundering minutes introducing us to the cavalcade of characters, providing title cards for our trio of main bros: Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), the ersatz leader of a group of sophisticated bank thieves, an ex-con and perfectly sculpted Long Beach denizen who the movie insists is “smart”; Big Nick (Gerard Butler, still thirsty as fuck), stereotypical crooked, beaten-to-shit cop, like a chain-smoking Vic Mackey with bigger biceps and more hair; and Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr., who, after Ingrid Goes West, is proving to be a seriously charming character actor), the unflappable link between the two sides of the law, a character who’d seem out of his element if you’d never seen a movie like this before. Merrimen plans to rob the LA branch of the Federal Reserve, and Nick—otherwise beset by classic Bad Lieutenant (a phrase uttered perhaps unironically in this film) vices like drug abuse and alcoholism, etc., as well as a wife (Dawn Olivieri, last seen as “wife” in Bright) who wants to divorce him because he’s a horrible person—wants to stop that theft from happening. Because he’s a cop. Because: bad guys—or whatever.
In one scene, a wasted Nick finds his now estranged wife at her friends’ house, or sister’s house—somewhere—and confronts his mortified ex about the divorce papers she’s served him. Nick signs the papers in front of everybody, and, after flexing his macho status, leaves; his wife the audience never sees again, the consequences of his actions never understood except for the inherent belligerence of his every line. He is the bad guy, get it? Which might be Gudegast feigning poignancy were there anything on the other side of the law to counter Nick being an inept family man. The closest we get is Levi (50 Cent), an abnormally-muscled heavy on Merrimen’s crew who has a 16-year-old daughter going to Homecoming or whatever who Levi and Merrimen and their shitty friends all protect like the young epitome of virginity she supposedly is by cornering her date in the garage and scaring all sexuality out of him, forever. (This scene ends with the terrified date slinking back into the house, the door to the garage closing to reveal a Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium poster prominently displayed on the wall of this testosterone-thick man cave as if a man with arms as disproportionately immense as 50 cent’s would ever tack a RHCP poster to the wall of the one place in his house he goes to get away from the burdens of family life and just focus on transcending his normal human shape.)
Hints of Gutegand’s storytelling ineptitude abound amidst an otherwise well-made picture, with Cliff Martinez phoning in his expected synth-heavy score, making sure Gerard Butler gets at least one scene staring into the middle distance against a gorgeous ambient interlude, while the action scenes (of which there are surprisingly few, the middle hour of this thing a restless slog) scream with bullet-pinging intensity. Which is to say: Gutegand can map out a compelling set piece, determined to locate an audience’s perspective viscerally within an otherwise confusing spatial plane, and the film’s final sequence of mass murder, in which everyone whom you expect to dies does, makes coherent visual sense, a feat of daring given the muddled nature of everything else about Den of Thieves.
At no point are we invited to care about any of these people, to understand how we’re supposed to balance the deplorable nature of everything Big Nick does with the utilitarian sophistication of Merrimen and his team of supposed bad guys, who, Gustegand goes to great lengths to assert, don’t kill innocent civilians in their complicated heists (though the same couldn’t be said for the final showdown, in which many innocent civilians undoubtedly eat lead). If Butler were more committed to grounding his character in family life rather than jutting out his jaw in some sort of gruff caricature of an anti-hero—more invested in litigating his relationship to “Wife” than simply stating, “We’re the bad guys,” as if that excuses actual character development—the audience may be more willing to wade through the morass of dubious morality infecting the mean streets of Long Beach. If Gustegand had any idea in his head besides aping better films which tell better stories about similar people (Heat could single-handedly demonstrate why Den of Thieves fails on a fundamental level) the empty hole at the heart of this film wouldn’t echo so loudly when bullets are pumped into it. Instead, we’re asked to choose a side. But there is no choice, and there is no side: Everyone should lose, and everything sucks.
Director: Christian Gudegast
Writer: Christian Gudegast
Starring: Gerard Butler, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Pablo Schreiber, Dawn Olivieri, Evan Jones, Mo McRae
Release Date: January 19, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.