‘Den of Thieves’ pulls off brutal action despite pointless subplots

STX Motion Pictures Artwork/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

“Where did you get all this information?” asks one of Merrimen’s henchmen after Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) magically produces the schematics for one of the tightest-security banks in the country.

Merrimen stares intensely for a moment.

“You don’t really need to worry about that,” he states assuredly, though the audience only chuckles at what appears to be a lazy write-around on the part of the creators behind “Den of Thieves.”

It’s moments like this one in the action flick that make one wonder if director and co-writer Christian Gudegast really went into this thing with a plan. Peculiar quips and tangential subplots are constantly taking the audience in and out of the focus of the overarching narrative. But, with a delightfully satisfying plot-twist ending and a few good action sequences to lean on, “Den of Thieves” emerges from its own disorienting design as a modest success.

The film isn’t different enough from “Ocean’s Eleven” to justify an extensive summary — a group of exceptionally talented criminals gather together to rob the unrobbable. The difference is this time, Gerard Butler (our second-favorite celebrity who looks like Russell Crowe, the first being Russell Crowe) is chasing them, and the proclaimed “original gangster cop” pulls no punches.

There are certainly creative flairs in the film that bring unfamiliar flavors to the tried-and-true action movie formula. Gudegast presents his story in a series of vignettes, with each primary character being introduced in a scene specifically constructed to define them for the audience. Once we’ve met our criminals and our cops, these vignettes continue, only in a less defined sense, with scenes that are edited together in such a way that they end abruptly or blend into each other. It offers an ideal balance for a subtle yet engaging method of visual storytelling.

But there are other elements of the storytelling that are too ambitious. Gudegast attempts to craft meaningful parallels between the “regulators” and the “outlaws” by taking us into their personal family lives. The problem is, we don’t care — not even a little bit — about Nick Flanagan’s (Butler) marital problems or whether Levi Enson’s (50 Cent) daughter has a nice date to the dance.

We don’t care because Nick and Levi, as well as many of the other main characters, are total assholes. They’re unapologetic, brutal and angry — only O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s Donnie is easy to love. It’s Jackson’s charisma that carries much of the film as it is; after appearing in “Straight Outta Compton” and “Ingrid Goes West,” the actor-musician has proven that he is certainly one to watch.

Den of Thieves

STX Motion Pictures Artwork/Courtesy

With unlikeable characters on both sides, it becomes challenging for the audience to know who to root for, so viewers are inclined to spend most of their time just waiting for the next big showdown. And these moments are worth the wait — with each shootout, robbery or car chase, Gudegast cuts the theatrics and delivers a pure, intense adrenaline rush. It’s refreshing to see action sequences this raw and unrestrained, completely lacking any absurd stunts or flashy bravery.

And then, we get to the ending. It would be an overstatement to say it was an unpredictable conclusion — our instincts tell us that this was inevitable way before the reveals are made. What’s exciting is that, in the blurriness of the fast-paced editing, off-putting dialogue and suspension of disbelief, the story was laden with clues pointing toward the twist all along. In other words, the film disguises itself as a bad action movie, but proves to be much more.

If nothing else, Gerard Butler has at least recovered any dignity he may have lost on the sets of “Geostorm” and “Gods of Egypt.” “Den of Thieves” may not make the action movie hall of fame, but it offers enough uniqueness in a genre so often plagued with familiarity that it should earn some respect.

“Den of Thieves” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.

Shannon O’Hara is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].