Writer: Christian Gudegast (script), Christian Gudegast, Paul Scheuring (story)
Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson, Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, Dawn Olivieri
Running time: 140mins
What’s the story: Career bank robber Ray Merrimen (Schreiber) is planning the ultimate heist. Can loose cannon LA County Sheriff’s Dept. cop “Big” Nick O’Brien stop him?
What’s the verdict: Den of Thieves is a film so derivative it would be simpler to list the ways in which it fails at being Heat.
Michael Mann’s 1995 crime opus was an icy-cool, blue-tinted study of flawed cops, code-bound criminals, and the blurred moral distinction between them. The type of film of which Jean-Pierre Melville would have been proud.
Den of Thieves is a self-serious, lukewarm knockoff about charmless thugs; their lawful, equally thuggish, equally charmless counterparts; and vague posturing around “Who’s the real criminals” (hint: it’s still the ones knocking over banks).
Instead of De Niro and Pacino’s Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna, we get the confusingly named Pablo Schreiber – he’s actually Canadian – and Gerard Butler as Ray Merrimen and “Big” Nick O’Brien.
Where Heat offered a gamut of memorable characters – played by the likes of Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Jon Voight and Ted Levine – Den of Thieves focuses almost entirely on its central duo.
If this is The Shield then everyone is also-ran character Ronnie Gardocki, up to and including ’50 Cent’ as Merrimen’s right-hand man. Only O’Shea Jackson Jr. gets anything to work with, as bartender-getaway driver Donnie, stuck between a prick and a hard-ass.
In the latter role Schreiber brings beardy, stare-y intensity. His sole character note seems to be an understandable desire not to go back to prison.
Where Pacino’s Lt. Hanna was a roaring livewire, Gerard Butler’s “Big” Nick O’Brien is a hard-living, swaggering bully boy who manages to make the innocuous act of drinking milk from his own fridge look like a home invasion in progress.
Instead of “She’s got a GREAT ASS!” we get “Give me a hug”. At least Butler looks like he’s having a bit of fun, amid bouts of intestinal issues: everyone else is stacked and while Butler is shot like he might be, you secretly suspect he isn’t.
Both Hanna and O’Brien have troubled marriages, of course: Nick’s wife Debbie (Olivieri) unsurprisingly hates him and leaves him, taking the kids, in almost her very first scene. At least this has a certain narrative efficiency absent from the rest of the bloated 140-minute duration. Though thirty minutes shorter than its predecessor, where Heat had me on the edge of my seat, Den of Thieves had me asleep under it.
Debuting director Christian Gudegast was previously a co-writer on London Has Fallen. The only positive attribute here is that unlike the “… Has Fallen” franchise, this film is not abhorrently racist.
It is, however, steeped in machismo. Heat’s legendary diner scene finds a counterpart here at a gun range, in which the two rivals fire off a bunch of rounds to prove their masculine supremacy, never exchanging a word.
But, almost every scene from Mann’s crime classic has a nutrition-free equivalent here, from an opening shootout in which the killing of a security guard leads to a massacre, to the climax on an anonymous industrial estate.
Maybe the only real achievement is the film finds time to be not only dumb Heat, but dumb Inside Man, and finally dumb The Usual Suspects. The twist, when it comes, is like waiting two-and-a-bit-hours for your microwave to ding, only for it to play La Cucaracha instead: it’s a nice touch, as far as it goes, but too little too late.
It doesn’t even make for an interesting exercise in style: Gudegast favours generic, close-up shakycam while cinematographer Terry Stacey seems to have taken Heat to mean temperature – his palette consists entirely of “orange haze”.
The film’s score, from the usually excellent Cliff Martinez, is so utterly featureless you’d be forgiven for forgetting the film has one. It’s a shame insofar as the mechanism that allows for Den of Thieves’ main heist is actually quite ingenious; involving a stolen security van, a cube full of money, and old Chinese food.
The greatest indictment of Den of Thieves is I found myself not resenting people getting their phones out in the cinema. What else are you supposed to do while your silver screen junk food is re-Heat-ing?