If Michael Mann's "Heat" is the filet mignon of cops and robbers stories on screen, "Den Of Thieves" plays more like the Big Mac version -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a film that knows exactly what it is: it might not be good for you, but it's a satisfying enough meal when you're in the moment. Directed by Christian Gudegas (the screenwriter of "London Has Fallen," making his directorial debut), this is the type of movie whose tagline announces it as a "gritty crime saga," which mostly means that it's way too long, and its characters swear a lot.
Gerard Butler continues his streak of devil-may-care career choices to star as "Big Nick" Flanagan, head of the elite Major Crimes unit of the LA County Sheriff's Department. The squad's down-and-dirty methods entail a blatant disregard for the law they claim to uphold, but they supposedly get results.
Borrowing the parallel story structure of "Heat," the film also follows former marine Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) and his bank robbing crew, which includes Enson (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), Bosco (Evan Jones), and Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr.). The latter is a new addition, acting as the gang's getaway driver. As Flanagan and his men pursue the crooks, poor Donnie ends up being the one Nick and his officers lean on to get information about Merrimen's plans to carry out a daring heist at the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve.
After an exciting enough opening action cue involving the heist of an armored truck, the film's first half gets bogged down in some half-hearted character development. The script, co-written by Gudegas with Paul Scheuring, pads out its story with extraneous plotlines, the most notable of which showing how Nick's immersion in his work has led to the disintegration of his marriage. That plot uses scenes of Nick's wife (Dawn Olivieri) walking out and taking their two young daughters to milk our emotions, but then drops that thread entirely. It's meant to add some psychological depth to Butler's character, but it just feels clichéd and tedious.
It's hard to understate exactly how much Gudegas shamelessly cribs from "Heat" with "Den of Thieves," right down to its digital photography -- capably carried off here by cinematographer Terry Stacey -- and synth score from Cliff Martinez. The filmmaker trades the former film's elegance for something a bit pulpier, but in borrowing so much, there's no way for "Den of Thieves" to escape feeling hopelessly derivative.
In a film like this, the question isn't whether there will be a scene set inside a neon-lit strip club, only how soon it'll be before we get there. And while it's perhaps not surprising that Olivieri is the only female role of note -- with the rest of film's female roles reserved only for strippers and prostitutes -- it's disappointing nonetheless.
As someone who's never been won over by Butler's performances, his work here is fine enough, even if he often comes off like sweaty, swollen Russell Crowe. Schreiber fares better, injecting Merrimen with an understated sense of menace. In another of the film's boneheaded attempts at character development, we learn that the two men have had an animosity toward one another that's existed since they played on rival high school football teams. De Niro and Pacino this pair is not.
Thankfully, the film's second half picks up significantly, getting back to the action we expect from a bank heist shoot-em-up by delivering a fun heist sequence and well-staged climactic shootout. These set pieces manage to build up some tension, even when some of the plot details remain somewhat murkily sketched in. The script tosses in a few twists, though the plot machinations strain credibility, they're no less ludicrous than what came before, and they're at least entertaining.
But the best decision the director made was to cast O'Shea Jackson Jr. in his movie. After memorably bursting onto the scene playing his father, Ice Cube, in "Straight Outta Compton," Jackson Jr. followed that up with a wonderful scene-stealing turn in last year's black comedy "Ingrid Goes West." The guy's clearly a star, and it's to Gudegas's credit that at least he knows it, giving Donnie the film's most compelling arc. He's the film's secret weapon. "Den of Thieves" is often by-the-numbers, but it's riveting any time Jackson Jr.'s on screen.