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‘Den of Thieves’ isn’t a terrible way to spend a dreary January day

The new movie “Den of Thieves” is as generic as its title. But then that’s OK, I suppose, because it’s a genre picture through and through.

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It’s a dark and gritty heist movie that will remind you of any number of other heist movies, but most especially Michael Mann’s 1995 classic “Heat,” which starred Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. That’s not a bad model to copycat, and if it’s not nearly as good, at least its aim is high.

In “Den of Thieves,” an elite crew of violent criminals squares off with an elite crew of violent LAPD officers.

Actor Pablo Schreiber (Liev’s brother) plays Merriman, the leader of the bad guys, who after a series of successful bank robberies and armored car invasions decides to go for the Mount Everest of banks.

“Look to your right. You know what that is? It’s the bank for banks. Los Angeles branch for the Federal Reserve. It’s the only bank that’s never been robbed.”

“All the surrounding streets are wired for sound and image… ”

“There have been 53 break-in attempts. Not one has got past the lobby.”

“That’s why we’re going to rob it.”

Merriman’s counterpart on the police force goes by the name “Big Nick.” Played by actor Gerard Butler, Big Nick runs an outlaw gang of cops who take pride in not playing by the rules. In the following excerpt, he roughs up Merriman’s getaway driver, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube’s son.)

“Do you know what this means? It means I am a member of a clique. It’s kind of like being in a gang … only we have badges, which means you are done. Let me ask you this: Do we look the types that will arrest you, put you in handcuffs, drag you down to the station?”

“No, not at all.”

“Right, exactly. We just shoot you. Less paperwork.”

As Big Nick likes to tell any criminal gang he runs into, they’re not the bad guys, we’re the bad guys.

The suggestion of a parallel between cops and criminals, while hardly original, would seem to offer some rich thematic possibilities but rather than explore them, the movie is content to half-heartedly hint at them and then move on. As if it can’t be bothered. This happens time and again in the film, especially when it comes to the personal lives of our protagonist.

Of course, this is a heist movie, and if it works as an action pic, then most all is forgiven. And there are some strikingly effective action set pieces, especially at the beginning and end of the film. Lots of screeching car chases and deadly serious firepower, with semi-automatic and fully-automatic weapons on blazing display. It more than earns its R-rating for its violence.

As for the heist itself, it’s plenty tense and clever enough, I guess, but there are still a few holes I haven’t been able to quite close. And one of the twists in the film is so derivative of another 90’s film that it cheapens rather than enriches the climax.

“Den of Thieves” breaks no new ground but thanks to some good ensemble acting and those action sequences, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple hours out of the rain in the month of January.

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