Los Angeles may be the “bank-robbery capital of the world,” as stated in the opening of “Den of Thieves,” but this aggressive action flick commits something closer to robbery of the senses. Offering cheap thrills at a high price, “Den of Thieves” pits two sketchily drawn caricatures of early-aughts machismo against each other in a pissing contest that ends with both of them holding their…guns in their hands. Save for a few clever twists and winning performances from O’Shea Jackson Jr. and 50 Cent (née Curtis Jackson), “Den of Thieves” is the kind of bloated crime thriller that could have been made in any decade — which is not to call it timeless so much as way past its time.
Appearing grizzled almost beyond recognition, Gerard Butler plays hardened antihero “Big Nick” Flanagan. Introduced as the “original gangster cop in the flesh” (just in case the black eye didn’t sell it), Nick’s entire character development rests on being the kind of guy who isn’t above chomping into a donut off the ground of a murder scene. In what seems like an obvious oversight, Nick too-quickly surmises that the man responsible for the bloody massacre must be Merrimen, a former marine-turned–expert bank robber, played by a bland and beefy Pablo Schreiber.
Based on a tip from one of his detectives, Nick pays a visit to the newest member of Merrimen’s crew, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a bartender who moonlights as a getaway driver. Giving in to Nick’s persuasion tactics (which seem fairly brutal for a Los Angeles County sheriff), Donnie eventually reveals Merrimen’s ambitious plan to rob the Federal Reserve. According to Merrimen, the Fed culls its intake of damaged bills and replaces them with new ones every day, sending $30 million in untraceable cash to the shredder. If they can get to it before then, they can walk away with money no one will ever coming looking for.
Between the opening robbery and the clever final con, “Den of Thieves” is surprisingly lacking in action scenes. There’s the scene where Nick roughs Donnie up, and a shooting range run-in that fires plenty of shots but is gun-shy on plot development. The result is a second act that drags where most thrillers would build, which gets bogged down in a Nick backstory that is so predictable it would have been better left to the imagination. (Jilted wife leaves with kids, files for divorce).
There is one entertaining scene that utilizes 50 Cent’s not-too-shabby acting skills, during which he and the rest of Merrimen’s crew scare the daylight out of his daughter’s prom date. Otherwise, Jackson Jr. is the sole bright spot; as Donnie bounces between the two warring bosses, his glowing smile and baby face never reveal too much about his wavering loyalties. As charming in “Straight Outta Compton” as he was in offbeat indie “Ingrid Goes West,” Jackson Jr.’s winning naturalism makes him the best part of most movies he is in. (A fairly easy task here).
Robbing the Federal Reserve is a sufficiently enticing caper premise, though oddly bureaucratic, and a few clever sleights of hand keep us guessing. Still, for all the double-agenting, there are shockingly few surprises in “Den of Thieves.” Writer/director Christian Gudecast seems far more interested in miring his hard-boiled detective in a limp rivalry, even forcing a bizarre and ultimately inconsequential cuckold situation between Merrimen and Nick.
Though Jackson Jr. plays a pivotal role, what is most disappointing about “Den of Thieves” is the choice of Butler and Schreiber as the two main men. Not only is it outdated in an action landscape that has long been dominated by actors of color like The Rock and Vin Diesel, but it is actively misleading. Black audiences drawn by the presence of Jackson Jr. and 50 Cent will likely be disappointed by their limited screen time, which in the current political moment feels like nothing more than highway robbery.
“Den of Thieves” opens in theaters nationwide on January 19.