Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves comes in a cut above the usual trash that Gerard Butler stars in (Law Abiding Citizen, Olympus Has Fallen), which is to say it’s a cut above movies that themselves are already passably diverting, largely owing to the Scottish actor’s overcompensatory commitment to full-bodied bluster. Here, he again does his ham-sandwich-as-acting thing as “Big Nick” O'Brien, the swaggering boss of “the Regulators,” a mostly left-alone, unregulated (get it?) major-crimes unit within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. In the opening sequence, set at dawn outside a south L.A. doughnut shop, an attempted raid on an armored car turns sour; the assailants escape and officers die. Some hours later, Nick shows up at the crime scene and quickly asserts his brand of law enforcement: He’s hungover and moody. He takes a bite out of a cake with sprinkles and then chucks the remains among the actual evidence on the concrete. He chews out a clean-cut FBI official for his veganism.
The masked men who botched the raid belong to “the Outlaws,” a tight-knit group of thieves with military credentials. Their leader, the recently paroled Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), has a poised demeanor but wild ambitions: After years of well-executed but relatively modestly scaled heist jobs, he wants to lift $30 million in unmarked bills from the L.A. branch of the Federal Reserve. His bag-of-tricks crew includes bartender Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), meek of manners but a fiercely confident getaway driver (said to hold the California state record for a speeding ticket), and Enson Levoux (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), whose efficiency and reliability is matched only by his dedication as a family man. A riotous garage-set scene of comic relief shows the Outlaws gently intimidating the boy who intends to take Enson’s daughter to the prom.
Gudegast, who wrote and directed, proves himself primarily competent in the latter capacity, outfitting his ever-familiar milieu with flashes of freshly understated technique. Even though he’s working with a marquee composer in Cliff Martinez (who has done striking work for Nicolas Winding Refn and Steven Soderbergh), Gudegast allows an impressive amount of material to play out with an utter minimum of musical accompaniment. When the Outlaws return to their lair after the disastrous doughnut-shop number, you might reasonably expect a barrage of yelling or the propulsive screeching of strings; instead, the soundtrack focuses simply on hushed undressing: the crunch of removed Velcro, the shuffling of hoisted-off undershirts. The shootouts — including the startling climactic one, a very Heat-ish last-man-standing scenario in a sea of stalled highway traffic — also are sonically modest, as well as briskly, urgently paced. (One of the credited editors, Joel Cox, is Clint Eastwood’s stalwart cutter.) There’s also efficient crosscutting between the law enforcers and the law breakers — the blurred lines between the two hardly being a novel idea, but the here-then-there rhythms at least enliven the hard-to-follow exposition.
As a writer, Gudegast revels in narrative misdirection and nasty one-liners. That pays off in ridiculous, rewind-worthy deliveries like when Butler’s Nick, while trying to arouse fear in O’Shea Jackson’s Donnie, tells the barkeep, “I’d fuck you.” Gudegast proves less strong when it comes to fundamental character-drawing: Save for Donnie, none of the underlings on either squad ever establish much of an identity. (The press notes describe the crook played by Maurice Compte as “an alcoholic gambler with a talent for turning informers,” which would have been interesting to see actually depicted onscreen.)
And Gudegast’s handling of domestic affairs is woefully inadequate; even with a padded runtime (140 minutes), Den of Thieves reserves barely any attention for its female characters. (Dawn Olivieri plays O'Brien’s wife; Meadow Williams, Merriman’s wife.) This is typical of the genre, but it’s even more alarming than usual when the obvious touchstone is a movie like Heat, which found time for searching conversations between its male heroes and the loves in their lives.
Still, between the candy of the Federal Reserve robbery itself — which features a marvelous running bit about the process of delivering Chinese food in a government-surveilled building — and the merry nonsense of Butler chugging Pepto-Bismol during a strategy session, Den of Thieves earns a nice spot in the watch-40-minutes-on-a-rainy-day canon.