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Problematic storyline weakens ‘Den of Thieves’

  • COURTESY STX ENTERTAINMENT

    Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau co-stars in “Den of Thieves” as one of the members of an elite L.A. Sheriff’s Department task force.

  • COURTESY STX ENTERTAINMENT

    Gerard Butler stars as Detective Flanagan in “Den of Thieves,” which also stars Hawaii-raised actor Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau, background.

“DEN OF THIEVES”

* 1/2

(R, 2:20)

So this is how it works: In the fall, movies are intended to be good and usually are. In the summer, movies are intended to be bad but profitable, and they’re usually both. But in January and February we get the special season. That”s when the movies are intended to be great but are horrible.

But not normal horrible. We’re talking seven-headed horrible, disaster-site horrible, a movie like, for example, “Den of Thieves,” which kicks off the 2018 winter season in style. Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, it seems intended to have been a crime epic in the vein of Michael Mann’s “Heat,” about two men of talent and spirit who happen to be on opposite sides of the law. And it’s sort of like that, if you can imagine a Michael Mann picture that has been set on fire and dropped from an airplane.

First-time director Christian Gudegast also wrote the film, and you can tell, in the sense that there was clearly no one there to look at the script and say, “Come on.” Gerard Butler, as wild-man Detective Flanagan, shows up in the first scene looking like he slept in his clothes, with his hair a mess and blotches on his face, as if he just got back from auditioning to play Steve Bannon. There has been a violent robbery of an armored truck. But here’s the weird part: The armored truck was empty.

In a normal crime movie, there would be an investigation to discover the perpetrators. Not here. Flanagan stands in front of a whiteboard and announces that it must be Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) and his gang. Merriman, the criminal genius. And the empty truck must be part of some bigger, master plan.

Flanagan is so sure he knows who did it that he shows up that evening at a nightclub where serious crimes are plotted. Apparently, crooks go to this one spot in Los Angeles to make it easier to get caught. There Flanagan intuits immediately that the bartender, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), must be part of Merriman’s gang. This detective is amazing. It’s almost as if the screenwriter is helping him.

But hey, let’s stop here. This is too convoluted, too crazy, too absurd to make any linear sense of. Better to concentrate on a handful of random absurdities.

For example, after cultivating a person on the inside of Merriman’s organization, Flanagan intentionally blows his cover. Why? Wrong question.

Midway through the movie, the cop already knows where the villain is — he is looking right at him — but he doesn’t make an arrest. Instead the movie takes a detour, in which the detective makes a point of having sex with the bad guy’s wife.

This is followed by another scene, in which the villain thanks his wife for having sex with the detective. It was all part of a master plan, see? But the plan is never revealed.

Throughout, the movie indulges in long scenes of conversation between Flanagan and minor characters. In the beginning you think, well, maybe that minor character will become important later. But no, “Den of Thieves” is just out of control.

Ultimately, the movie’s main problem is that it’s about a heist, but it’s also about a cop trying to prevent the heist. That’s a tension that’s tough to pull off. If you’re rooting for both things to happen, that could be interesting. That might work if the audience had some investment in the characters, but this isn’t Al Pacino going up against Robert De Niro. This is a slob versus a psychopath, and it’s a matter of indifference who succeeds and who fails.

Of possible interest to Hawaii audiences are the appearances by local actors Max Holloway and Sonya Balmores Chung, and Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau, a former resident now living in Southern California.

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