Every good heist abides by two golden rules: get in, and get out. The same logic applies to heist movies too. The quicker, sleeker and smoother you can be following through with your best laid plains, the better. The best pictures in the genre have an understanding of pace and structure, and are constantly moving forward. They’re not always short, but they always respect your patience. Ironically, what “Den of Thieves,” the directorial debut of screenwriter Christian Gudegast (“London Has Fallen“), steals most is your time. At a ridiculously long 140 minutes, it’s a bloated, prolonged, overextended procedural with little redeeming value.
In the gritty heart of Los Angeles, which is apparently the “bank robbery capital of the world” according to the film’s opening text, we’re promptly thrust into the underworld of well-armed criminals. Mastermind robber Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) leads a ruthless, vigilante and deadly team of robbers, which includes Bosco (Evan Jones), Levi Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). They’re the most successful robbers in the state. But an altercation in front of a donut shop involving many fired weapons and dead police officers results in the attention of “Big Nick” Flanagan (an invigorated Gerard Butler), a corrupt-but-committed LAPD cop who runs a roguish after-hours crew called “The Regulators,” a team that’s unafraid to use their badges to kidnap, torture and do whatever it takes in the name of legal justice. Big Nick is hellbent on bringing down Merriman’s crew, and he believes he can — with Donnie’s help.
Scouting him during his regular bartending job, Big Nick and his fellow Regulators kidnap Donnie, rough him up and give him an ultimatum: Donnie can walk away with his freedom if he works with the Regulators and feeds them information on Merriman’s next heist. Of course, it’s a big one. The crew plans to break into the Federal Reserve Bank, an incredibly well-guarded establishment that destroys $30 million on any given day. If Merriman works it carefully, the crew of dangerous robbers can sneak in, walk away with all those millions, and nobody will know it’s missing. But, expectedly, with a furious Big Nick hot on their trail and Donnie uncomfortably guiding him, Merriman and the Regulators are soon confronted.
The apparent influences of “Heat,” “The Town,” and several other heist movies of the past are not hard to spot. Gudegast is well-studied in the art of heist thrillers, and he doesn’t shy away from showing those inspirations in his first directorial feature. Unfortunately, the filmmaker brings nothing new to the table. “Den of Thieves” lacks not only originality, but the depth that made those much better movies so resonant. While layered in its plotting, the story in “Den of Thieves” is ultimately quite simple, and it doesn’t need to be dragged out to this overstayed length. There’s probably a 105-minute cut of ‘Thieves’ that might not have be an improvement, but certainly would be breezier and brisker affair. As it stands, this version of “Den of Thieves” feels like an unruly director’s cut that somehow become the theatrical version.
I almost want to admire Gudegast for getting this cut into theaters, as bloated as it is. There’s a divorce subplot with Big Nick, and the ramifications it has on his family, that doesn’t go anywhere productive. There’s a sequence involving Levi’s daughter going to a school dance with a squirrelly young man that is meant to bring some levity to the film, but it doesn’t progress the plot in any meaningful way. There’s a lot to set-up to the eventual bank robbery, and some of it is admittedly pretty good, but it arrives far too late in this overstuffed movie. Simply put, there’s too much movie here.
And then there’s Butler, who gives one of his most magnetic turns in ages. Slightly heavier, with an untrimmed beard, uncombed hair, a litter of tattoos around his body and a perpetual wheeze in his throat, Butler is most definitely giving us a performance, seemingly channelling his inner James Gandolfini as the film goes on. It’s not necessarily good, but it’s definitely entertaining, and it’s almost worth recommending “Den Of Thieves” for his wild, manic work alone. It’s a valiant effort, and to be fair, most of the performances found in Gudegast’s movie are decent — with the sole exception of 50 Cent, who thankfully isn’t given a whole lot of dialogue. Meanwhile, just as he did in “Straight Outta Compton” and this past summer’s overlooked “Ingrid Goes West,” Jackson Jr. is proving himself to be an exceptionally gifted young actor, and Schrieber brings a good amount of menace and scowl to his demanding part.
Additionally, Gudegast does provide a good amount of grimy atmosphere to his L.A. setting, and the action sequences keep you involved even as the running time starts to get gruelling. But, at 140 minutes, “Den of Thieves” gets too caught up in its own indulgences, and that’s a crime it can’t escape. [C+]