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‘Den of Thieves’ a humdrum heist

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There’s a joy to watching heist movies that is tough to find in any other cinematic subgenre. They’re propulsive by nature, with an inherent structure that allows for a steady build to an elaborate and satisfying climax.

Well … hopefully satisfying, anyway.

See, while there’s a lot to love about good heist movies (and even bad ones, really), there are few things worse than a forgettable heist movie, a film that cobbles together a threadbare collection of influences from superior offerings into something that simply … is.

Which brings us to “Den of Thieves.” The film – directed by Christian Gudegast from his own screenplay – is kind of a mess, packed with characters whose motivations are muddy and schemes that are needlessly elaborate, but not in the fun way. It’s an overlong slog whose general underwhelming nature can’t be rescued by the occasional solid set piece. It just doesn’t measure up to the superior films upon which it is obviously modeling itself.

You’ve got two factions here. On one side, there’s the super-successful, ultra-skilled and sophisticated bank robbery crew. Led by the glowering Merriman (Pablo Schreiber, TV’s “American Gods”), the group of ex-military men includes Merriman’s former platoon mates Levi (rapper 50 Cent) and Bosco (Evan Jones, “Shot Caller”), as well as the recruited wheelman Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr., “Ingrid Goes West”) and a collection of interchangeable large Pacific Islander tough guys.

On the other is the L.A. Sheriff’s Department’s Major Crimes unit, led by grizzled shady cop stereotype Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler, “Geostorm”); his cohort – Murph (Brian Van Holt, “Hot Break”), Borracho (Maurice Compte, TV’s “Power”), Zapata (Kaiwi Lyman, “Hickok”) and Gus (Mo McRae, “Aftermath”) – is devoted to doing whatever it takes to take down the bad guys. Anything up to and including becoming sort of bad guys themselves.

(Don’t worry about the names – there are like three dudes that matter in this movie and everybody else is just a plot device or scenery. There’s a whole subplot about Nick’s failing marriage that we’re going to ignore because even the movie itself seems to realize how pointless it is.)

So Merriman and his crew decide that they’re going to go for the big score – they’re going to knock over the Federal Reserve location in Los Angeles. They have an elaborate plot filled with ludicrous leaps that make little sense, but hey – they’re the best at robbing or whatever. Meanwhile, Nick and the Major Crimes dudes know that Merriman is the ringleader, but they have to catch him in the act, so they wind up muscling Donnie into being an informant. Donnie tells them things, then tells Merriman that he told them those things, which leads to Merriman telling Donnie to tell them OTHER things and … well, you probably get the point.

It all culminates in an extended sequence where the bad guys try to rob the place and the cops try to stop them from robbing the place and we’re never quite sure what’s going on and who are the bad guys REALLY and blah blah blah. Oh, and an ending that is a masterpiece in stupidity; part of me honestly thinks it’s so transcendently stupid that it actually improves the movie.

“Den of Thieves” is what you get when someone wants to make a heist movie because they have vague memories of watching “Heat” once – probably while a little drunk. It’s trying so hard to be other movies that it never really settles into being itself. It’s bloated – it runs 140 minutes and that 40 probably should have been chopped. The audience has literally no reason to care about any of these people – even the moments intended to deepen the characters feel tacked on and thin (although admittedly there’s a scene where 50 Cent deals with his daughter’s prom date that is actually kind of funny).

Grizzled Gerard Butler is grizzled, even though he still looks like a wad of pastry dough with stubble and a vague accent. He’s tough and ethically challenged, but he also has feelings that he displays in utterly unconvincing ways. Schreiber is a non-entity; it’s like he substituted tattoos and intense eye contact for, you know, actual personality. Always nice to see 50 Cent, even if he’s always 50 Cent. Sometimes with a different name, but yeah – 50 Cent. Jackson brings very little to the table as Donnie, but he’s Ice Cube’s son, so get used to seeing him. The rest of the cast could not matter less; they simply run together, formless blobs of Bad Guy and Good Guy that exist solely to fill out the roster.

Basically, this movie just isn’t good. The performances are all over the map, the central plot and action make no sense and there are huge chunks of screen time spent completely unnecessarily.

Let’s be honest - the real heist perpetrated here is the $15.3 million that “Den of Thieves” stole from America at the box office this weekend.

[2 out of 5]

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