Den of Thieves Review

It’s hard to make a bad Gerard Butler movie.

This isn’t to say that none of his movies are bad. Rather, Gerard Butler is the kind of actor so willing to ham it up that nothing he’s in is ever a complete waste of time. He’s committed to the point that I’ve long considered him a better actor than he’s generally given credit for (or given the roles to prove), though he seems to be doing perfectly well in the gregarious tough guy niche he’s carved out for himself.

Unfortunately, Den of Thieves is the kind of slog that almost completely runs out that goodwill.

Directed and co-written by Christian Gudegast, Den of Thieves isn’t without its moments (there are precisely two of them, in fact), but none of the good things about the movie can outweigh the bloated 140-minute running time, nor the clunky dialogue and near-toxic level of machismo.

Butler’s character is named Nick “Big Nick” O’Brien, which should go a long way towards illustrating exactly what I mean. This is the kind of guy who’s known as a “gangster cop,” who sports tattoos and cheats on his wife, who tells crooks that he’s the bad guy, and who can’t peacefully coexist with any man who doesn’t eat meat or wear leather. And the entire world of Den of Thieves conforms to that worldview. Every single guy in the main cast is just a variation on Big Nick’s schtick, and the women are props to a degree that almost makes you wish there just weren’t any women in the movie at all if the alternative was being treated like this.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a set-up that doesn’t acquit anyone in it particularly well. In fact, it seems to dull the senses. Butler, as the head of an elite unit of LAPD cops, forgoes acting much of the time in order to struggle with the American accent he’s been saddled with. Pablo Schreiber, usually an absolutely ferocious screen presence, gets lost in the noise, failing to make much of an impression as Ray Merrimen, leader of a criminal gang planning on robbing the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Los Angeles. Even O’Shea Jackson Jr., who should be leading his own movies by now, can’t make his character Donnie, a new addition to the criminal gang, all that compelling. (Meanwhile, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson barely has anything to do despite how prominently he’s featured in the marketing.) In other words, these are personalities with very little to give, which starts to get grating somewhere around the one-hour mark. It’s not pleasant spending time with Big Nick, which may partially be the point (he’s a maverick, get it?), but also makes it difficult to care what happens next.

It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by just how much this movie seems to love guns. At first it’s difficult to tell just what Gudegast is getting at, as the shoot-out that opens the film has an air of horror to it, with the sound of gunfire turned all the way up. But as the movie progresses, it becomes obvious that he actually doesn’t have that much of an agenda. All that matters is that his characters are badasses, toting military rifles and tearing up Los Angeles with little regard for human life in their glorified game of cops and robbers.

This belligerent attitude only makes it all the more striking — and all the more strange — when, in a scene towards the end of the second act of the film, Gerard Butler finally breaks down and cries. (This is one of the aforementioned two moments.) It’s not the kind of display of emotion that’s usually allowed from men in fare like this, and to wit, there’s nothing else in the entire movie that even comes close to matching that level of vulnerability. But it’s also the one scene that almost saved the entire movie, if only because I could suddenly see what Den of Thieves could have been had it committed to anything besides mediocrity.

There’s an explicit reference to Casablanca that hints at a more graceful movie, too, in part because of the obvious “honor among thieves” dynamic of Rick’s café, as well as the fact that the namedrop seems so completely alien. The way they’ve been written, none of these men have ever watched a black and white movie, and yet at least two of them are tapped into the world of “As Time Goes By.” That idea is infinitely more interesting than the cut-and-paste (and paste, and paste) film that we get, and would at least make a case for existing.

The cop movie is a genre that’s prime for subversion and/or examination, but Den of Thieves does neither. And the longer the movie wears on, the more obvious it becomes that there’s no real point to anything we’re seeing. Movies don’t need to moralize or have some central thesis to prove, but there has to be something of merit to justify the time spent. Gerard Butler’s performance isn’t it, unfortunately, and neither are the visuals, which are decidedly middle-of-the-road. Cliff Martinez’s score, meanwhile, seems to fade away as the film progresses, and though there are a few plot twists thrown into the mix, none of them are so mind-blowing that they forgive the rest of the movie’s sins.

The best thing that I can ultimately say about Den of Thieves is that it’s a missed opportunity. All of the ingredients for a great cop movie are there, but instead of being cooked, they’ve been left to spoil in clichés and decidedly retrograde attitudes. It can’t even be recommended as a mindless watch — it’s too long and too loud for that.

/Film Rating: 3 out of 10

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About the Author

Karen Han is a writer based in New York, via the midwest. She writes about film, TV, and Tintin, among other things.