DEN OF THIEVES (Christian Gudegast)

When I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to see 12 Strong with me, she immediately declined.

That night, while watching TV together, a trailer comes on for a movie she says she wants to see. Its title?

12 Strong.

Turns out, she (understandably) confused 12 Strong with Den of Thieves, which makes sense: both came out on the same day and are driven by an ensemble of gun-brandishing men. Though Den of Thieves replaces 12 Strong’s conventional American soldiers vs. Middle Eastern terrorists formula with an equally-conventional cops vs. robbers tale, they’re both ardently-familiar and thus forgettably-enjoyable Hollywood action romps, lacking visual flourishes, distinct personalities, and deep plumbing of the interior depths of neither their characters’ arcs nor the stories’ potentially enriching ideas.

Yet whereas 12 Strong is perfectly content perpetuating a traditional — and rather shallow — good-guys vs. bad-guys perspective, Den of Thieves actually complicates this too easy moral dichotomy; its cops look like the disheveled and disorganized renegades, while the robbers are an ordered and tactical unit. Throughout the movie, similarities are presented between the two groups through visual and structural mirroring, the most subtle of which concern their personal lives; the criminals are shown jovially protecting one of their own’s daughters, while Gerard Butler’s cop’s infidelities are hammered home ad infinitum. The message is clear: sometimes it takes dishonorable men to bring honorable justice to a Den of Thieves (great title, by the by).

Except this surprisingly smart connection merely requires a single scene to point out; instead, like the rest of this over-indulged two-and-a-half hour affair, Den of Thieves needlessly, repeatedly returns to Butler’s family, as if these rote depictions of their drama could actually elicit an emotional response from the audience. I respect the desire to conventionally “class up” the joint, but if a movie is most comfortable in the macho register of guns and blood, then it should just stick to that; it’s what the audience most likely came to see anyways.

By focusing on what it does best and cutting everything else, Den of Thieves would’ve given itself more time to flesh out the rushed and thus confusing expository over-plotting. Plus, it could’ve struck more of 12 Strong’s ideal balance between the entertaining spectacle of violence and its necessary narrative connective tissue; in its current form, the action scenes are largely reserved only for the opening heist and the proloooonged final one. Even so, Den of Thieves fills these gaps with sufficiently engaging events of suspense to maintain interest.

Leading the acting brigade in this mission are Gerard Butler for the good guys and Pablo Schreiber for the bad — think of them as Den of Thieve’s De Niro and Pacino from Heat — both of whom always revel in chewing up the scenery (which Butler always does with his usual brand of badassery). As for the ensemble’s famous-rapper-turned-actor and the-actor-son-of-a-famous-rapper: Curtis ’50  Cent’ Jackson continues to demonstrate that he can only play Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (and not particularly well at that), while O’Shea Jackson showcases how he can successfully tinker with the wattage of his natural charisma based on the dictates of his given material.

The whole movie is basically like a vastly inferior version of Heat — with the same Los Angeles setting to boot — except without the filmmaking style, human grace, and top-tier players to transcendently shoot up the place.

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