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Entertaining, if not always wholly original, crime drama

Gerard Butler in “Den of Thieves”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Power plays rule hockey, but they also dominate the outcome in the heist genre, which, in terms of film narratives, is the very definition of blood sport. Standing at the top of my all-time list is Michael Mann’s “Heat” – Does anyone capture seething macho intensity better than Mann? – but I have a great deal of love and respect for Ben Affleck’s criminally minded Beantown caper “The Town.”  It would be difficult to attempt to update this genre without paying homage to these gems. For proof, look no further than “Den of Thieves,” the new film from screenwriter Christian Gudegast (“A Man Apart” & “London Has Fallen”), making his directing debut here.

The match-up is presented as one for the ages with the impenetrable Federal Reserve Bank in LA serving as the elusive top prize. On one side, you’ve got the most successful bank robbery crew in Los Angeles, led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), a former special forces soldier and criminal mastermind with a keen military mind who has spent time behind bars, but survived as much due to his unwavering sense of duty as the elite fighting skills he exhibited and developed in the field of combat. He’s also a former athlete, a stand-out there as well. His team features a rugged collection of guys from each aspect of his life (Evan Jones and 50 Cent play his two closest associates) and there’s the sense that a real brotherhood exists amongst them.

The story drifts briefly from the mean focus on the heist to illustrate this point when 50 Cent’s Levi Enson must confront a cocky young man eager to take his daughter to the prom. It is a moment straight out of the “Bad Boys 2” playbook, where a concerned father gets support from his homies. In this case, Enson brings the kid into the garage for a little conference with his extended crew – a large multicultural muscle-bound and heavily tattooed gang. We all know and appreciate the joke, and revel in the moment, just like the guys in the crew. It serves to humanize them without taking anything away from their deadly purpose.

On the other side of the divide sits Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler), the major crimes detective in the LA Sheriff’s Department who happens to be the stereotypical rulebreaker extraordinaire. Flanagan is the hungriest alpha wolf in the den, enlisted to protect and shepherd the sheep, but there’s always the nagging feeling that he might be willing to sacrifice a sheep or two in the herd to his pack, just to keep them sated. Gudegast lets us see the worst of Flanagan – his abject womanizing, which results in his wife (Dawn Olivieri) applying for divorce, and his extreme torture of a possible insider plant named Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) in Merriman’s crew.

Flanagan tells us that he and his unit are bad guys, and there’s no reason to doubt that claim, at least when it comes to the top dog. He displays a willingness to use any and all means at his disposal to coerce people to do his bidding.

The battle of wills between Merrimen and Flanagan aspires to the level of the epic pairing between Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), but in addition to lacking the star power of that dynamic acting duo, the “Den of Thieves” characters exhibit far less real respect for one another. The bad blood incorporates a personal element – with Merrimen and Flanagan casually using sex with the same woman – that never factored into the “Heat” situation. McCauley and Hanna saw and appreciated the shared traits that bound them together and never acted without honor.

I suppose Gudegast seeks to give credence to the notion that there’s no honor among thieves, but if that’s truly the case and point he wants to make, he could have done so with a bit more efficiency. Ping-ponging back and forth between the two sides, offering such would-be poignant exchanges, teases audiences unnecessarily and wastes precious time that could have been spent on the tense heist and its explosive aftermath, which is where everyone wants to be. The execution in these moments is thrilling, although muddied by a final plot twist that slavishly apes “The Usual Suspects.”

I get that filmmakers believe that we’ve evolved into more sophisticated viewers, worthy of gamesmanship of the highest order, but films like “The Usual Suspects” and Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” knew how to respect our intelligence by building perfect capers that fooled us without making us feel foolish for having gone along for the ride. 

Rating: R; Grade: B-