Ambition isn’t a bad quality to see in a January movie. The simplest thing to call “Den of Thieves” would be a heist thriller, but it’s a relatively elaborate one, an underworld action drama that sprawls and digresses and for a while, at least, appears to have something on its mind. The movie is set in Los Angeles, which it presents as the bank-robbery capital of the Western world, and the director, Christian Gudegast, shoots the city’s endless freeway maze with a synth-pop moodiness that’s flagrantly evocative of Michael Mann.
As it turns out, the existential drive-by atmosphere of “Den of Thieves” isn’t even the most Mann-ish thing about it. The film coasts along on parallel narrative tracks, zeroing in on a team of renegade cops, led by Gerard Butler as a sensitive bruiser, as well as a crew of robbers who are planning to break into the L.A. branch of the Federal Reserve Bank: an impossibly locked-down fortress of money. The intricate double storyline is an obvious knockoff of the one in “Heat” (with a distant echo of “The French Connection”), and for roughly 45 minutes of the film’s 2-hour-and-20-minute running time, “Den of Thieves” is sturdy enough to earn the comparison.
Gudegast, the screenwriter of “London Has Fallen” (this is his first outing as a director), gives good crime-noir surface. But there’s another movie whose influence hovers over this one: Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects.” And trying to mirror that film’s fanciful sweep lands Gudegast in trouble. Simply put: You shouldn’t make a movie about an outrageously well-crafted heist in which your own storytelling keeps cutting corners.
The most impressive thing “Den of Thieves” does is to squeeze a rare charismatic performance out of the generally inexpressive Gerard Butler. He’s an actor who tends to lead with his dyspeptic scowl, and often doesn’t have much going on beneath it, but in “Den of Thieves” he underplays the brutish bluster, acting with a fast throwaway twinkle evocative of Russell Crowe in his prime. In an early scene, Butler’s Nick O’Brien and his team throw a boozy house party in which they shackle Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), the driver for the criminal mastermind Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), to an armchair and beat what he knows out of him. It’s an outrageously illegal set-up, but the movie blithely winks at O’Brien’s do-whatever-it-takes philosophy, as much “The French Connection” winked at Popeye Doyle’s. Butler, towering over the other actors in his perfectly scuffed period leather jackets, makes Flanagan the kind of lewd, crude, but whip-smart joker-monomaniac that we enjoy seeing walk around the rules.
O’Brien is also in the middle of a collapsing marriage, and the scene in which his wife, Debbie (Dawn Olivieri), walks out on him, taking their two young daughters, is reminiscent of the pungent domestic scenes in both seasons of “True Detective.” The movie seems to be saying that when law enforcement becomes an obsession, this is the price. “Den of Thieves” catches us up in O’Brien’s fixated gaze, and at the same time it’s in the nature of the genre that we’re rooting for the cleverness of the robbers, who are five steps ahead of the cops. In their unfolding duel, the two forces both seem to be floating above the inferno of the concrete city.
Then something grippingly odd happens. There’s a charged sequence set at a Japanese hibachi restaurant, where O’Brien saunters in and makes a deliberate spectacle of himself in front of Merrimen and his crew. He targets Donnie, the driver he now knows, revealing that the two have had contact with each other. It’s a badass scene, very entertaining on its own terms, but what, exactly, is the strategy O’Brien is employing? The movie has established that Merriman, the gang leader, is a merciless cutthroat, so when Donnie is revealed to know this haughty cop, you’d think that would KO him as a driver; you’d think he might end up in a ditch somewhere. But no: Merriman questions him, and is apparently reassured by Donnie’s protests that he got captured, and strong-armed, by O’Brien but told him nothing.
This is the kind of scarcely plausible twist that a movie like “Den of Thieves” never fully recovers from. It “plays,” yet it defies everything the film has been telling us. And just as O’Brien intentionally tips his hand, so does the lead criminal, leaking news of a set-up heist so that O’Brien and his crew will be there in the parking lot, right next to the action yet, in a larger sense, thrown off the trail. It parses, sort of, in some abstract way, but the logic is fuzzy, and so, from that point on, is the movie’s suspense.
There’s a good sharp bit that hinges on Donnie delivering Chinese food to a couple of workers inside the Federal Reserve. But the actual robbery isn’t satisfying, because the details of how it’s carried out (and then sabotaged) are too vague. O’Brien’s loss of his family is milked for surprising sincerity, then dropped entirely. For a film that has this much going on, “Den of Thieves” is better at set-up than follow-through. The movie is clever enough, until it cheats. It tries to fill in its characters, until reducing them to plot devices. By the end, you’re reminded, once again, why there are so many Michael Mann imitators but so few who are able to burn his influence into something memorable.