Gerard Butler is back on track in "Den of Thieves."

Gerard Butler is back on track in "Den of Thieves." Credit: STX Entertainment

PLOT A bank-robbing crew attempts to knock over the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve.

CAST Gerard Butler, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson



BOTTOM LINE Butler is in fine form as a rough-edged cop in this action thriller.

Whenever Gerard Butler appears in a new film, the moviegoing public scratches its collective head: Why is he a star, again? The answer, of course, is the comic-book adaptation “300,” in which the little-known Scottish actor so memorably played a lusty, blood-drunk Spartan. That was more than 10 years ago, though, and subsequent efforts to turn Butler into a rom-com cutie (remember “Playing for Keeps”?) never quite succeeded.

More successful were “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013) and its sequel, “London Has Fallen,” two unabashed “Die Hard” knockoffs that turned Butler into a beefier, shaggier Bruce Willis. Butler made for a rock-solid action figure, and he’s back in fine form in “Den of Thieves.” Written by Christian Gudegast, who wrote “London Has Fallen” and makes his directorial debut here, “Den of Thieves” is a modest but impressively gritty crime thriller that captures Butler in one of his best performances yet.

Butler plays Nick O’Brien, a Los Angeles cop investigating an unusual shootout where someone stole an armored truck — an empty one. What Nick discovers is that a criminal gang is planning to rob the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve, a fortress thought to be impenetrable. Nick’s inside snitch is the gang’s young getaway driver, Donnie, played by a likable O’Shea Jackson Jr. (He portrayed his rapper father, Ice Cube, in the biopic “Straight Outta Compton.”) The crew is a highly disciplined unit led by two former -Marines, Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) and Enson Levoux (rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).

“Den of Thieves” keeps us hooked — even for a lengthy 140 minutes — partly because Gudegast’s script is rich in logistical detail (the Reserve heist actually sounds plausible) and because his action scenes have real impact (he prefers firefights to fisticuffs). The movie’s ace card, though, is Butler as a cop who’s gotten so good at playing the heavy — pushing bad guys’ buttons and rattling their cages — that he’s forgotten how to be a decent person in real life. Dawn Olivieri plays his wife, Deb, in two short but surprisingly effective scenes.

“Den of Thieves” may not be as moody as “To Live and Die in L.A.” or as clever as “The Usual Suspects,” but it works well on its own terms. As for Butler, it’s like discovering him all over again.

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