Den of Thieves: 'Genius' bank robbers, rogue cops and implausible deniability

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C

There are real life bank robbers, and then there are the “genius” criminals in the world of heist films. There seems to be a school of screenwriting that says the more complicated the scheme, the less attention you’ll pay to plot-holes.

They may be right to an extent. The plain-spoken version of this is, “bullsh—baffles brains.”

However, Den of ThievesGerard Butler’s bloody, noisy, over-long turn as an irredeemably rogue “bad cop” in charge of a team of LAPD bad-asses – slathers on the complications so thickly, you might ask yourself why anybody is doing anything at any given time.

 Gerard Butler in Den of Thieves. That furrowed brow says, "I'm outsmarting criminal geniuses.."

Gerard Butler in Den of Thieves. That furrowed brow says, "I'm outsmarting criminal geniuses.."

Den of Thieves is the directorial debut of London Has Fallen writer Christian Gudegast (seriously, who would watch that Gerard Butler movie and think, “The guy who wrote this? He should be directing!”). You’d have watched London Has Fallen for one reason only, to watch things blow up.

Den of Thieves, however, aspires to more - though it opens with an armored car robbery involving every weapon this side of bunker-busting bombs, with dead security guards, cops and criminals alike.

This would be considered a “fail” by any standard of criminal activity, but Big Nick (Butler) recognizes it as the work of the uncannily clever ex-Iraq soldier Merriman (Pablo Schreiber half-sibling of Liev Schreiber), whom he’d thought was safely locked away. Turns out he’s been released on parole. Nick confirms all suspicion when he and his “gangsta” cops kidnap and beat Merriman’s driver Donnie (Straight Outta Compton’s O'Shea Jackson Jr.).

Usually, armed with this kind of intel, criminal investigators will wait for the perps to make their next move, hoping that they remain oblivious to the fact that they’ve attracted the cops’ attention (and how can you not, when you’ve killed cops?).

But since this is a morally grey story of two alpha males, basically the same on opposite sides of the law, it’s important that Nick let Merriman know he’s on to him. In a bar. Where he indicates that he knows Donnie. Thus, poisoning their inside connection AND throwing the element of surprise under a bus.

Meanwhile, Merriman, having lost the element of surprise, doesn’t do what most criminals would do (abort your upcoming bank job and lay low for a while).

Instead, he goes quid pro quo, stalking Nick, setting him up with a hooker who’s on his payroll, and generally staring him down, both of them raising their eyebrows menacingly and flexing muscles.

All this, and Merriman continues putting together an insanely-complicated plan to rob the most un-robbable institution in the country, the Federal Reserve Bank of Los Angeles.

Again, why anybody does anything in this movie is a complete mystery. Just know that if you’re ever stuck on the San Diego Freeway at rush hour, teams of cops and robbers may decide to get out of their cars and open fire on each other with grenade launchers and automatic weapons. Happens all the time, judging by the lack of media attention (in real life, L.A. TV news outlets have more choppers in the air than the LAPD).

This kind of noisy numbskullery seems to be more in Gudegast’s wheelhouse. He has a definite knack for pointless carnage. It’s the Training Day-esque part of the movie where he has to draw moral equivalency between Merriman and Nick that bogs it down. Nick is bad news – two hours and 20 minutes worth of bad news. He drinks, cheats on his wife with strippers, but then breaks down and cries when she leaves with the kids. He’s a complicated man.

To recap: Crooks know they’re being followed and have been ID’ed to the last man, but go on planning a heist that would be improbable even if no one was expecting it. Cops have photos of every single one of them and know they’re about to pull the mother-of-all-jobs and don’t simply tip off every big bank in town. (The movie even notes that the Federal Bank has facial recognition software in its cameras).

It’s often said of certain action films, turn off your brain and just go with the action. In this case, it’s turn off your brain, lock it down, maybe reboot it.

Den of Thieves. Directed and co-written by Christian Gudegast. Starring Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber and O'Shea Jackson. Opens wide, Friday, January 12.