Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
DEN OF THIEVES
Rated R, 140 minutes
Director: Christian Gudegast
Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Evan Jones, 50 Cent, Brian Van Holt, Cooper Andrews, Jordan Bridges, Dawn Olivieri, Meadow Williams, Sonya Balmores, Elle Whitfield, Madelyn Lazar
Did the world need a hyper-violent, gender-swapped version of MAD MONEY? Do we need another HEAT told by people who have no fundamental understanding of what makes that film so great? No, but here we are.
We’re in the January/ February corridor, which for audiences means suffering through whatever generic, interminably sluggish and unmemorable cops n’ criminals shoot ‘em up Hollywood’s dishing out. It’s a pattern that’s taken rise over the past few years with the lackluster releases of SLEEPLESS and TRIPLE 9, and frankly it needs to be broken. Despite the lack of critical and commercial success for this trend, we’re given yet another empty, rattling garbage can no one asked for in co-writer/ director Christian Gudegast’s DEN OF THIEVES. Desperately wanting to be HEAT for a new testosterone-fueled, aggro-male generation, it utterly fails to do anything remotely exciting, electric, or entertaining with the mimeograph. Every scene feels like a dick measuring contest. Every belabored act feels like an exercise in torture.
LA County Sherriff Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler), or “Big Nick” as he’s nicknamed, doesn’t play by the rules. You learn this when he nicks a donut off a dead cop at a crime scene. His wife Deb (Dawn Olivieri) hates him because he cheats on her with strippers and comes home plastered. Vegan FBI agent Bob Golightly (Jordan Bridges) despises him, typically engaging in a who can say “f**k you” the loudest battle. And his colleagues, fellow “Regulators” in the Major Crimes unit of the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department, aren’t too fond of him either. However, his unorthodox methods for weeding out crime have proven beneficial. Nick’s special set of skills are about to be tested, intercepting what could be the heist of the century by the state’s most successful bank robbery crew. These lotharios, the “Outlaws,” include Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Enson Levoux (Curtis “50 Cent”Jackson), Bosco (Evan Jones), Mack (Cooper Andrews) and their recently paroled leader, Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber).
The real crime here is overly complicating and adding vestigial threads to the narrative. Gudegast (LONDON HAS FALLEN) and co-writer Paul Scheuring’s (PRISON BREAK) copycat of better heist films lacks a crucial understanding of what ignites those films’ flames. It can barely identify what worked about MAD MONEY. They’ve made the criminals’ scheme needlessly convoluted. So much so, it entirely undercuts the minuscule amounts of momentum the robbery sequence creates. There’s a plot point about three day old Chinese food hidden in a light fixture in a men’s room I could write another thousand words on, but I’ll spare you. Just know it’s so many things – and none of them are good. Honestly, the third act is ludicrous. They Keyser-Söze it with one of the characters, leaving this property open to direct-to-video franchise possibilities. Smart business for the actor involved, but an eyeball-roll-inducing dumb choice in terms of the narrative.
Every scene is dragged out incessantly, giving you ample time to think about the filmmaker’s motivations for including all the superfluous nonsense. There’s a perfunctory message clumsily posited by making the criminals all ex-military, as if to say we don’t do enough for our vets so they’re forced to resort to crime. Why do I need to know the FBI agent’s dietary preference? Because it’s what passes for character dimension here [Narrator: It didn’t]. Why do we need to see the criminals’ home lives? Because HEAT did this too and the filmmakers think superficially humanizing these guys will make us care when they perish [Narrator: It doesn’t]. Why didn’t the Outlaws’ plan involve an inside job, with one of their crew embedded? Because how else will they side step being called reductive [Narrator: They still were].
Everything about Nick’s home life hits sour notes as well. He’s not just an unlikeable hero, dwelling in a morally gray area, he’s clearly toxic. The attempt to soften this, with the scene outside his daughter McKenna’s (Elle Whitfield) school, is cheap manipulation. The scene of Nick signing divorce papers is endless and awkward – as are most of his confrontations with other humans in this movie. Plus, as the glacially-paced picture’s run time slowly ticks away, the more you see Nick exposed as terrible at his job.
The lone highlights are the sparkling, polished second unit shots of the Los Angeles locations we rarely see captured so elegantly on film. That said, even the back alleys of Gardena, Hawthorne and San Pedro don’t seem so run down – maybe because it’s Atlanta dressed to look like Los Angeles. Perhaps that’s also a failing since this film could use some genuine grit and grime. Similar to his work on DRIVE, Cliff Martinez’s score provides an ethereal, contemplative soundscape for Los Angeles County’s underground. Gudegast barely utilizes it, which is both a blessing and a curse, but when he does, it puts the audience in the right mood.
DEN OF THIEVES opens on January 19.