If “Heat” smelled like a strip club and replaced Pacino-De Niro with Leonidas-Pornstache, it might look (and smell) a little something like “Den of Thieves.” And if you’re wondering whether I mean that as an insult or a compliment, my answer is yes.
This is the kind of high-caliber January junk that comes along every so often — a hard-R crime movie full of good action and bad men that’s far better than it needs to be.
“Den of Thieves” follows a den of thieves and the crew of cops trying to take them down. The thieves are smart and merciless. In the rip-roaring opening scene, they steal an armored truck and kill a few guards and cops in the process. Now they’re public enemy No. 1, and an elite unit of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office is after them.
The elite unit is effective but corrupt enough to make “The Shield” look like “Dragnet.” They’re led by an epic mess of a human being named Big Nick (Gerard Butler).
The thieves are led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber, of “Orange Is the New Black”), a hardened con who dreams the dream of so many hardened cons of crime movies past: one last big score.
The plan is to rob L.A.’s Federal Reserve Bank of $30 million. His most trusted fellow thief is played by 50 Cent. Caught in the middle of the cops and robbers is Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), working as both getaway driver and informant.
Though “Den of Thieves” runs a little long at 140 minutes, the film stays focused, with all plot threads pointing to the big-heist finale, which takes up nearly half the movie.
The film is the directorial debut of Christian Gudegast (who wrote the Butler vehicle “London Has Fallen”), and the first-timer has made an efficient and effective action film with a few brutal high points.
We also get to learn things about the trade in “Den of Thieves.” Like how to diffuse dye packs or how to Trojan-horse your way into a bank vault using a giant cube of cash.
Gudegast gets a lot of help in making this all exciting. “American Sniper” editor Joel Cox cuts the thievery and shootouts into good shape, and “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez gives the film a nice, propulsive thump.
What keeps “Den of Thieves” from being just a workmanlike example of craft, however, is how vile the movie allows everyone to be. With the exception of Donnie, these guys are execrable human beings, especially the cops. (Note: There are women in “Den of Thieves,” but they’re not really characters so much as props that are stood upright to approximate ex-wives, abuse victims, prostitutes and soon-to-be widows. Not a super-woke movie is “Den of Thieves.”)
The grossest of the guys is Butler’s Big Nick. The once-handsome movie star, wearing a bushy goatee flanked by stubble, is beginning to look like Sebastian Gorka on a three-day bender.
And he appears to be loving it. Butler makes a meal of the script’s rancid dialogue and looks right at home in his grimy surroundings.
It’s a good look for him. More movies would benefit from Butler playing such a bad guy.
* * *
Den of Thieves
Director: Christian Gudegast
Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Rating: R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Oakview, Regal, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads