Friday, January 19, 2018

Den of Thieves: Find other accommodations

Den of Thieves (2018) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, relentless profanity, sexuality and nudity

By Derrick Bang

This is a vile, vulgar and violent slice of exploitative trash.

Which is a shame, because there’s a rather clever heist thriller — with an audacious final twist — buried beneath writer/director Christian Gudegast’s boatload of moral squalor.

"Big Nick" O'Brien (Gerard Butler, right) can't figure out what a crew of professional bank
robbers might be up to ... which is no surprise, since O'Brien appears to have the
intelligence of a cranberry.
Gudegast will be recalled as the scribe behind 2016’s atrociously mean-spirited and deplorably xenophobic London Has Fallen, and his sensibilities haven’t changed. Once upon a time, action heroes took pains to avoid needless collateral civilian fatalities, but no more; these days, blasting unlucky bystanders is merely part of the business-as-usual body count.

Really, there’s little difference between the good guys and bad guys. Which appears to be how Gudegast sees the world.

He’s also unpardonably sexist: Almost all the women in this testosterone-fueled swill are whores, or strippers, or both. The one exception is our (supposedly) good guy’s long-suffering wife, who pops up just long enough to announce that she’s leaving him, and taking their two young daughters, for their own protection.

It shows good taste on the part of actress Dawn Olivieri, who apparently bolted from the set as quickly as possible.

This crime saga is set in Los Angeles, which an introductory text crawl boldly proclaims is the “bank robbery capital of the world” — which hasn’t been true for at least 20 years — and then offers, as “supporting facts,” some overblown statistics that, aside from being ludicrously inaccurate, also suffer from bad math. (What, did nobody notice?)

Getting this information dump in the first few minutes, against the throbbing pulse of Cliff Martinez’s painfully loud synth score, does not bode well for what follows.

That sinking feeling proved more prophetic, as Gudegast’s story wore on.

Den of Thieves is an insufferably macho battle of wits and tough-talking swagger between L.A. Sheriff’s Department icon “Big Nick” O’Brien (Gerard Butler) and special forces veteran-turned-bank robber Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber). O’Brien heads the Regulators, an elite major crimes squad — apparently answerable to nobody — while Merriman runs the Outlaws, a gang of ex-military men with exceptional expertise and tactical skills.

Caught in the middle: Donnie Wilson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), an ex-con bartender with a facility for fast cars, who’s forced by O’Brien to spy on the Outlaws when Merriman hires him as a getaway driver.

Gudegast takes his time — far too much of it — introducing these folks, along with their key acolytes. O’Brien’s team of five is highlighted by the philosophical Gus Henderson (Mo McRae) and gung-ho Tony Zapata (Kaiwi Lyman); the other two Regulators remain rather faceless. Merriman is assisted by explosives expert and family man Enson Levoux (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson); and electronics specialist Bosco Ostroman (Evan Jones).

The Outlaws’ goal: robbing downtown Los Angeles’ impenetrable Federal Reserve Bank, despite its high security and army of well-trained guards.

Fair enough; that’s a solid premise on which to hang an action thriller. But spending so much anticipatory time with these mopes is more than the average moviegoer should have to endure, particularly since what passes for dialogue is limited to monosyllabic grunts and relentless F-bombs.

Gudegast’s efforts at ruminative musing are even worse. At one point, O’Brien observes that “People who have something to hide, don’t have much to say.” Butler delivers that line so badly, that it drew well-deserved snickers from Monday evening’s preview screening audience.

Given that Butler serves as one of this film’s 13 (!) producers, and that he starred in the aforementioned London Has Fallen, we must assume that he and Gudegast are buddy-buddy. It’s sad to see Butler settle for so little; the Scottish actor showed big-screen promise 15 years ago, but — of late — has too frequently limited his activity to exploitative junk.

On top of which, it’s impossible to accept the notion that the vulgar, alcoholic, unkempt, insubordinate Flanagan — an uncontrollable loose cannon — would be allowed to head a major crimes squad. This is the sort of idiotic plotting, and dialogue, that sounds like it was written by a sniggering 12-year-old boy, for other 12-year-old boys.

Schreiber, playing it cooler, makes Merriman more interesting. Pitting him against the boastful Flanagan seems an unfair match; as presented, the disciplined and physically fit Merriman would out-think and out-perform this brutish cop, particularly since (sadly) Butler can’t adequately conceal his aging paunch behind bullet-proof vests.

Jackson Jr., in turn, is quite convincing as the frequently terrified Donnie, trying hard to stay alive while being forced to play both sides against each other. Jackson Jr. delivers just the right blend of stubborn bluster, each time Donnie tries to preserve a little dignity while being humiliated by either Flanagan or Merriman.

Jordan Bridges is a waste of space as “Lobbin’ Bob” Golightly, a vegan FBI agent apparently inserted for comic relief. Doesn’t work.

Cinematographer Terry Stacey gives the numerous inner-city locations an appropriately gritty, grainy texture that complements the often arid, smoggy look. (The setting notwithstanding, the location shooting was done in Atlanta, not Los Angeles.)

Martinez’s relentlessly thumping “score” is more bombast than music, and as painfully deafening as the frequent gunfire.

All the above notwithstanding, this film’s worst sin is its self-indulgent 140-minute length. Under no circumstances should an exploitative action thriller run so long; doing so merely emphasizes Gudegast’s total lack of directorial judgment.

This genre certainly has produced worse; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s execrable Sabotage (2014) immediately comes to mind. But Den of Thieves is nothing to be proud of, and I dearly hope Gudegast isn’t allowed to direct again.

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