It’s very early morning and still dark as an armored car moves west through the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena. The armed crew hits during the guards’ coffee stop at a donut shop. They are shit-hot and move tactically, so it’s obvious that these guys are professional, probably ex-military. But shots are fired, leaving behind four dead bodies as the crew speeds off in the armored car toward the airport. “Big Nick” O’Brien (Gerard Butler, looking like he just ate Russell Crowe), the gruff and loud boss of a major crimes squad in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, stuffs a dead guard’s donut into his mouth as he looks over the scene hours later. Why go through all this trouble to steal an empty armored truck? And could a movie that stars Gerard Butler, the undisputed king of junk, be actually kind of good?
The leader of the heist crew is Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber), a real pro who just got out on parole, and his team are mostly former Marines, apart from the new addition, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a getaway driver. But Big Nick already knows that. He’s suspected that Merrimen has been behind half a dozen major scores over the years, but the guy is just too good, never leaving evidence—not even with this recent fuckup with the armored truck. So after trying to squeeze information out of the unseasoned Donnie, he waits for Merrimen’s next move, studying him, trying to psych out the expert operator while his marriage falls apart at home. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the basic plot of Michael Mann’s classic Heat, from which Den Of Thieves cribs shamelessly, barely approximating the original’s sweeping and stone-cold elegance or the operatic tension it created between the characters played by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Its first-time director, Christian Gudegast, isn’t above blatantly copying Mann-isms: the attention to guns and industrial tools, the snaking tunnels and highways, the ocean views, the synth score. But the film is rougher, pulpier, pettier, more low-rent; Merrimen and Big Nick are former football stars from rival high schools, and the connection between the two is more of a locker room pissing contest than an existential bond. (This actually ends up exaggerating the homoeroticism of the cop-robber relationship.) Nonetheless, Gudegast, who co-wrote the script with Prison Break creator Paul Scheuring, manages to sustain interest for most of the film’s sprawling 140 minutes while shifting attention between characters, including Big Nick, Merrimen, Donnie, and Merrimen’s right-hand man, Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). It’s derivative and drowning in stagnant machismo, but stark enough to work. Its best scenes are tough-guy duels of opposing wills, shooting reflexes, and marksmanship: an ingenious wordless confrontation between Big Nick and Merrimen at a gun range; the inevitable climactic shoot-out on a traffic-jammed highway on-ramp.
Weirdly, Butler’s performance is both one of the Scottish actor’s most entertaining and most obnoxious. His smug, sweaty, leather-jacketed bad cop is the kind of lawman audiences love to see get outsmarted. It helps that Merrimen has an intriguing target in mind for his next big score: He plans to hit the money-shredding operations of the Federal Reserve and make off with $30 million in old, worn, out-of-circulation $100 bills before they get sliced into thin ribbons. The armored truck plays a role in this heist. But, in the style of an Ocean’s caper, Den Of Thieves keeps the plan a secret from the audience.