Gerard Butler has worn many masks throughout his career. After breaking into the zeitgeist as a six-pack wielding warrior, he’s taken on a menagerie of roles in many different genres, most prominently in action and romantic comedy. I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of them (the most obvious exception being Gods of Egypt), and am generally excited to see what he’s got up his sleeve next. Why? He’s not a character actor like Gary Oldman, who’s able to disappear into a role with ease, and tends to play the same rugged, sarcastic chap across all of his films regardless of genre, but the honesty of knowing he’ll never be an Oscar winning actor carries over on screen, reflecting the passion he has for whatever project he’s in, no matter how good or bad it may be.
Which is what makes Den of Thieves, Butler’s newest crime thriller, so hard to pin down. On one level, Butler is pushing the “tough, gritty” cop idea a little too far, showing hardly any nuance to his otherwise broken character, Nick Flanagan. At the same time, he tends to hit all of the right notes with his aggressive, yet self-harming tactics. He’s a man pushing hard against the boundaries of law enforcement, but doesn’t seem to know how to turn that gritty meat grinder arrogance off in his everyday life. Butler tries to find the balance between these two mindsets, but in so doing, creates identifiable flaws in what could have been a masterful performance.
It’s not all Butler’s fault. He does a good job bringing all of the conflicting emotion to life from a script that, much like it’s lead character, can’t figure out how to make all of the pieces fit. Under the hands of director Christian Gudegast (who also wrote the script), Thieves tries hard to give Nick a backstory that explains his tired, harmful defiance, as well as a team of cops that not only play into this overt testosterone, but feed off his destructive energy while at the same time fueling it. What Gudegast can’t seem to pin down, though, is how to make these ideas fit into the plot in a way that doesn’t make them feel superfluous.
With all that said, for whatever reason, the movie works as a decent crime thriller, and I believe its due to the villains that populate the other side of Nick’s coin. As he and his team hunt down a master bank robber known only as Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), Merrimen brings his crew together for one last major heist — robbing the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve. It’s a tricky play, as it’s one of the most secure buildings on the planet, but with over $30 million in clean bills just sitting there waiting to hit the shredders, they’re willing to take that risk. The plan starts with the robbery of an armored car, a scene that opens the movie with a taut flair, not only introducing us to this band of thieves, but setting the stage for what to expect throughout the rest of the film.
In contrast to Butler, Schreiber does a wonderful job showing menace without going over the top. But I also have to give a lot of credit to O’Shea Jackson Jr., who brings a lot of gravitas to the proceedings as Levi Enson, one of Merrimen’s new crewmembers. Having been seen with Merrimen, Nick believes he will be the key to getting inside and taking Merrimen down once and for all. After Nick’s team abducts Levi, they use him to feed them intel on Merrimen’s crew. Jackson sinks into his role with a scalpel like confidence, playing into the fears of the character while posing for the camera at the same time.
But admit it. What we’re all really waiting to see with a film like this is the heist (and how they adjust to unforeseen circumstances). At the moment the heist goes into effect, the film hits on all the right cylinders. I don’t know if that’s because of the way Gudegast creates tension as all the pieces start to fall into place, or whether it’s because Butler is basically removed from the proceedings for the majority of it all, but it works on every level, leading to a finale chase sequence that pumps as much adrenaline into it as it can muster, and an end that is well earned, but not quite deserved. Every piece is set up beautifully in order to pull it off (though there are a couple of moments that make it more obvious than it needed to be), but because of all the loose ends, and moments that don’t really amount to anything, what the end does is show us all how much better the movie could have been.
As you can see, I’m still not sure how to feel about the film. There are a lot of great moments and set pieces, and when Butler and Schreiber are on screen together, the energy and machismo are magnetic. But Gudegast’s script make the film feel weak and unsure of itself. If only Butler had managed to dial back some of his unwarranted hard-ass masculinity and provide a slightly more subtle pain to highlight his emotional arsenal, it may have helped earn the grade everyone involved most likely deserved.
My Grade: B+
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Next week, new movies include Maze Runner: The Death Cure and Hostiles. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.