Enduring 140 immediately and unswervingly painful minutes inexplicably afforded to Den of Thieves is like watching a thrill-seeking liquor-store robber get a “Born to Lose” chest tattoo in real time.
That’s as close as this space will come to specifically referencing anything from a 1995 film to which this piece of irredeemable garbage so hopelessly aspires. The earlier film doesn’t deserve much further indignity. Both are tales of well-armed robbers in L.A. going up against cops with outsized personalities. You can figure out which might star two of the greatest actors of all time and which stars Gerard Butler and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
Awful Gerard Butler movies more or less appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season, Geostorm’s goofball pleasures excepted. Here, Butler plays Nick “Big Nick” O’Brien, whose description as a “big, bad lieutenant” by a vegan G-man and recurring target of Nick’s taunts lands because this movie wishes Nicolas Cage had said yes. It’s a welcome reminder of his remaining standards.
Anyway, Nick is frequently introduced in scenes chewing on something, as if the scenery were but Butler’s amuse-bouche. The alternative is Nick cavalierly cracking jokes to African-American characters that he doesn’t have to arrest them when he can just shoot them. This is before he chokes them out in a film from the year 2018 that has the tone-deafness to presume a wide audience’s rooting interest in a pile of shit whose rancid odor is never challenged in any way.
Nick is on the trail of Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), who — for reasons either unexplained or lost to one of many hazy lapses of interest — has a tattoo that reads “Peckerwood” above his crotch. Merriman is a Marine turned master thief — a description that sounds more exciting than anything he actually does — whose crew includes Enson (Jackson) and Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who at least escapes from this with his charismatic energy and promising career trajectory unscathed).
Their plan is to rob a Federal Reserve of $30 million slated for destruction. It’s the same plot of Mad Money, a comedy with Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes released 10 years to the day before Den of Thieves. That tells you the level of quality from co-writer Christian Gudegast — also wringing a directorial debut from a contribution to the execrable, but profitable London Has Fallen — and co-writer Paul Scheuring, concocting similar left-field nonsense as he did on TV’s Prison Break.
A sample dialogue exchange:
“Tell him to get the fuck back here!”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“Fuck! Is he serious?”
The numerous onscreen character introductions are useless; the actors are all bargain-basement knockoffs of Ben Foster, Taye Diggs, Jackie Earle Haley, Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant anyway. Any connection you feel to any of these people is sheer Stockholm Syndrome by being stuck with them for so long. The two action scenes are spaced two full hours apart and monumentally boring. The usually reliable composer Cliff Martinez seems to have fallen asleep on his synthesizer for sequences at a time.
Product placement for Carl’s Jr. is amusing. The moment where certain characters escape through the visual embodiment of a plot hole is good for a laugh. Sundry onscreen location indicators mean nothing. Who cares if we’re at the south gate of a scrapyard? The symbolism of characters hopelessly sorting through other people’s garbage bags to find what they’re looking for would play just fine at the north gate.
Look, David Ayer isn’t necessarily always good at these sorts of movies, either, but at least they generally have the whiff of authenticity. Den of Thieves is overwhelmed by the aroma of ass.