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film review

Gerard Butler stars in Den of Thieves.Daniel McFadden

We're not exactly sure who coined the phrase, "There's a sucker born every minute," but if it wasn't the showman P. T. Barnum, then Hollywood probably has as much right to it as anyone else. Because filmmakers play crowds for chumps – we're looking at you, Christian Gudegast, and your disingenuous film Den of Thieves.

With a cat-and-mouse crime tale that does not ring true, Gudegast tries to convince his audience that the lines between cop and criminal and righteousness and immorality are blurred. There is a right and entertaining way to do that – see Dog Day Afternoon, or more recently 2016's Hell or High Water – but Den of Thieves isn't that way. "You're not the bad guys, we are," growls a thuggish cop played by a beefed-up Gerard Butler, speaking to a criminal (who are, by definition, bad guys).

Gudegast, a first-time director who wrote the script to Den of Thieves (and who has probably watched Michael Mann's Heat more than once) attempts to comment on humanity's complexities. But all he does with his soulless, hollow characters is make a solid case that men are violent sleazes.

Speaking of which, alpha dog Big Nick O'Brien (a bearded, tattooed Butler) leads the "Regulators," a tough major-crimes unit of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He drinks, he smokes and he womanizes. Big Nick has a visible toxicity to him, physically and otherwise, and he and his posse will bend the law to preserve it.

His adversary is Ray Merriman (played by Pablo Schreiber of TV's American Gods), an ice-calm, methodical, bank-robbing maestro with an elite military background. Among his Kevlar-wearing outlaws is his right-hand man, Levi Enson. Somewhere underneath all those new muscles, you'll find the rapper-turned-actor Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson.

Gudegast unconvincingly attempts to humanize these thugs and semi-corrupt cops. Big Nick cries because he messed up his marriage and misses his little daughters. Bank robber Merriman spares the life of a witness to his crime. 50 Cent's character is adorably protective of his teenage daughter. So, all just regular guys, right? Nope, not buying it – these fellows are brutes whose manliness is measured in spent bullet cartridges.

The upshot of the film is that the outlaws, with a string of successful bank jobs behind them, are planning a motherlode score: A heist at the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Los Angeles, a seemingly impenetrable facility. It's quite the caper.

Keeping things interesting is a new recruit to the robbers, a getaway driver and bartender played nicely by O'Shea Jackson Jr. He acquitted himself in 2015's Straight Outta Compton, in which he portrayed his actor-rapper father Ice Cube. His character is the linchpin of this film: The cops have him made, but the robbers know it. Whose side is he on?

The film falls apart in its numerous implausibilities. For one thing, in the most protected bank in the city, a (fake) delivery guy is allowed entry anytime he wants to deliver Chinese food to a couple of bank workers, and then walk around as he pleases. Even more dubious is that the thieves are allowed to go to another bank and take hostages, all under the watchful eyes of the detectives. More than once, Big Nick tells us that the robbers can't be arrested until they actually commit the robbery. But just because Big Nick says that doesn't mean it holds any water.

Later, the cops initiate a major firefight, with civilians all over the place. Just ridiculous.

The film ends – not counting a twisteroo final scene that allows for a sequel – with a duel between the cop and the robber. It's the film's most highly charged confrontation, which isn't saying much. The tagline for Den of Thieves is "pick a side," but neither side is particularly appealing and neither is this film.

Den of Thieves opens Jan. 19