An audacious, white-knuckled, adrenaline-laced, cops and robbers’ crime thriller with a twist ending, writer & director Christian Gudegast’s “Den of Thieves” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) pits a loose cannon L.A. County Sheriff’s Department detective against a crackerjack team of gunmen shaped in the crucible of combat while serving as soldiers in the Middle East. These nonconformist warriors came home, clashed with the law, and survived the purgatory of prison to emerge as an elite gang angling for the big score before they retreat into obscurity. The lead in “300” and “Olympus Has Fallen,” Gerard Butler turns in a strong performance as an obsessive cop struggling with marital woes. Pablo Schreiber of “13 Hours” commands the villains. He matches wits with Butler in a lively cat and mouse game where survival is the prize and a cold slab in a morgue is the penalty for those who stray from the straight and the narrow. 50 Cent fans may not recognize Curtis James Jackson III with his Hercules physique.
“Den of Thieves” reminded me of Michael Mann’s bank robbery movie “Heat” (1995) where Al Pacino’s rugged cop tangled with Robert De Niro’s hard-nosed bank robber in a high stakes showdown. The difference between “Den of Thieves” and “Heat” is Butler displays little respect for his adversaries. Meantime, the villains have a few tricks up their sleeves that nobody, especially armchair detectives, may be prepared for at fadeout. Although he makes his debut as a director, Christian Gudegast has already established his bonafides as a genre specialist with not only the Vin Diesel thriller “A Man Apart,” but also Butler’s “London Has Fallen,” the gung-ho sequel to “Olympus Has Fallen.” Butler is at his best as a tough-guy protagonist, and his gritty performance compares strongly with Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of an unorthodox, hard-as-nails, NYPD detective in the 1972 Best Picture “The French Connection.” A wry sense of humor pervades this 140-minute, R-rated opus, but it never undercuts the gravity of the action. Mind you, a fourth quarter glitch in credibility threatens to unravel the plausibility of plot. Nevertheless, Gudegast and “Prison Break” creator and co-scribe Paul Scheuring have worked out meticulously the logistics of this far-fetched caper. They conclude it with an out-of-left-field finale like Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995) that wowed everybody. If you like your heist thrillers served up with lots of testosterone, tense ‘snap, crackle, pop’ firefights, and obstinate adversaries who refuse to flee, “Den of Thieves” is your ticket.
Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler of “London Has Fallen”) runs a squad tasked with bank robberies. His guys could be mistaken for stone-cold, Russian mafia gunsels. They are unkempt, and their arms are engraved with tattoos. They have no qualms about violating rules. Everything is fair once they “click” off their safeties. Nick’s free-for-all lifestyle doesn’t harmonize with his wife, Debbie (Dawn Olivieri of “The Wolverine”), and her dreams of middle-class domesticity with their two elementary school age daughters. Naturally, they don’t understand why she walks out on their father. As the film unfolds, “Den of Thieves” presents statistics that classify Los Angeles as “the bank robbery capital of the world” with a hold-up every 48 minutes. Basically, Gudegast’s epic is a West coast version of Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (2005), where Boston boasted more bank robbers per capita than any other city. Meanwhile, Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) has assembled a posse of heavily-armed, former Marines, who have matriculated through prison after returning stateside. They carry out their crimes with a military precision. Those plans hit a snag when they approach an armored car after dark outside a donut shop. A hail of bullets erupts like Armageddon descending. An innocent bystander lives to tell the authorities that he saw masked shooters lay down a barrage on the guards. Later, after he arrives at the scene, Nick plunders a sprinkled donut from a box that one of the guard’s dropped during the massacre.
Gudegast doesn’t give the audience a chance to get comfortable. Upfront without any delay, he stages a violent, night-time attack on an armored car as if he were imitating “Black Hawk Down.” The villains mow down the off-duty guards, steal their armored car, and then stash it safely out of sight. They send somebody back to photograph the various law enforcement personnel at the crime scene. Merrimen isn’t happy one of their own lies sprawled dead in it. Eventually, Nick suspects Merrimen may be the ringleader. Unfortunately, the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. They stake Merrimen out and search for accomplices. They abduct an African-American, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr. of “Straight Outta Compton”), who tends bar where Merrimen drinks. The two show up in surveillance snaps. Nick interrogates Donnie in a motel where his deputies are having a party. Primarily, Nick is interested in Merrimen, and Donnie confesses he serves just as a getaway driver. Merrimen confides nothing in him. Donnie heaves a sigh of relief when Nick turns him loose. Meantime, Donnie doesn’t share the incident with Merrimen. Merrimen unveils their master plan. They have decided to liberate $30-million in clean currency from the fortress-like branch of the L.A. Federal Reserve Bank! The gauntlet of security checkpoints and surveillance cameras that they must contend with makes “Den of Thieves” look like a Tom Cruise “Mission Impossible” cliffhanger.
Apart from a domestic strife scene when Nick fails to reason with his wife, “Den of Thieves” shifts back and forth between the sheriffs and the robbers. Gudegast emphasizes the professionalism on both sides. Merrimen’s gunmen shoot only those who shoot at them. Furthermore, the bad guys orchestrate a multifaceted heist that involves them infiltrating the Federal Reserve and looting it smack under the nose of the guards. Suddenly, brazen Nick blows his cover and approaches Donnie and Merrimen in a restaurant and lets them know about him. This is Nick’s way of going off the reservation that spikes the suspense. Surprises and revelations ensue. “Den of Thieves” is “Heat”/”The Town” laced with “The Usual Suspects.”