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With a heavyweight cast led by Michael Caine and a screenplay which chronicles the biggest heist in British criminal history, King of Thieves really should have delivered way more cinematic swag than it does. Told with dutiful, almost docudrama accuracy by Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire, The Theory of Everything) and screenwriter Joe Penhall (Mindhunter), this prosaically competent comedy-thriller turns a rich true story into a tonally uneven blend of lukewarm laughs and low-level suspense. Marsh’s creaky-jointed caper movie has already opened strongly in U.K. cinemas, to indifferent reviews, though a U.S. release date has yet to be confirmed.
In April 2015, a gang of silver-haired senior citizens broke into Hatton Garden Safe Deposit in central London, a heavily fortified vault used by local diamond dealers and jewelers to store their treasures. Their sensational haul of loot worth around £14 million ($18.5 million) generated worldwide news headlines, especially when it emerged that the thieves were all creaky-jointed crooks in their sixties and seventies. King of Thieves plays into this folksy fantasy of cheeky old-school cockney rogues with its allusions to vintage Ealing Studios comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).
But this story’s strong cinematic credentials ultimately counted against Marsh, who is once again late to the party here. Earlier this year, his maritime mystery biopic The Mercy opened almost simultaneously with a more inventive low-budget treatment of the same story, Simon Rumley’s Crowhurst. His latest true-crime caper arrives after two more pulpy films based on the robbery, Hatton Garden: The Heist (2016) and The Hatton Garden Job (2017). A TV miniseries about these events starring Timothy Spall is also due later this year.
Relishing a rare chance to showcase his native cockney accent to the max, Caine plays Brian Reader, a recently widowed London crook who promised his late wife Lynne (Francesca Annis) that he would stay out of trouble after her death. But a chance encounter with young computer expert Basil (Charlie Cox) offers him the chance to finally realize one of his long-cherished dreams by clearing out the safety deposit boxes beneath Hatton Garden. Even criminals have a bucket list.
King of Thieves tracks the genesis of the Hatton Garden heist as Reader puts together a team of fellow gray-haired old-timers including Terry Perkins (Jim Broadbent), John “Kenny” Collins (Tom Courtenay) and Daniel Jones (Ray Winstone), the baby of the crew at just 60. Their advanced ages allow Penhall ample room for much comic banter about hip replacements and incontinence, which starts out endearingly human but soon becomes tiresomely repetitive.
Marsh shoots the ineptly staged robbery in the same comic register, especially when the gang turn to clownish seafood merchant Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon) to help hide and fence their loot. But the film turns darker in its second half as old rivalries and buried tensions flare up into violent threats and back-stabbing betrayals. There is little honor among these thieves. Meanwhile, the police identify the culprits almost immediately, alerted by a trail of obvious clues and clumsy mistakes. A trap is set and the usual suspects are rounded up, with one notable exception.
King of Thieves is a kind of triple-level tribute to an elderly cohort of venerable British actors, to a halcyon era of heist movies, and to a golden age of colorful old-school criminals. It proves more successful in the first mission than the other two. One of Marsh’s few inspired motifs involves splicing brief snippets from classic old movies into his, including glimpses of the main cast in their youthful primes: Caine in The Italian Job (1969), Courtenay in Billy Liar (1963), Winstone in Scum (1979) and so on. A smart touch, albeit too briefly and timidly deployed. Steven Soderbergh pulled off this time-travel trick more effectively with Terence Stamp in The Limey (1999).
King of Thieves relies heavily on its craggy-faced prestige cast to keep audiences interested, but their performances are an uneven mix. While it is heartening to see Britfilm royalty like the 85-year-old Caine and 81-year-old Courtenay still playing meaty lead roles, Broadbent simply lacks conviction as a menacing underworld bruiser. The ultra-masculine world these joyless old men inhabit also feels oddly colorless, with scant trace of family or private lives. The film’s sole female character dies within the first 10 minutes. Bizarrely, two women police officers figure prominently in the second act but never speak a word onscreen. Presumably this was a budgeting decision, but it becomes increasingly surreal to witness their numerous wordless scenes, like some kind of reverse Bechdel Test.
The key flaw with King of Thieves is its flat-footed style. Marsh pays lip service to the whirling kaleidoscopic cool of the Swinging Sixties with his nostalgic flashbacks and retro-flavored soundtrack, which blends a jazzy pastiche score with vintage jukebox hits, but his own cinematic grammar remains firmly rooted in drab docu-realism. And while Penhall’s screenplay boasts some witty lines and elegiac grace notes, he frequently defaults to lowest common denominator scenes of grumpy old men tossing F-bombs and casual homophobic insults at each other. A master stylist like Scorsese or Soderbergh would have made this rich story dance off the screen. In Marsh’s workmanlike treatment, it limps and shuffles.
Production companies: Working Title, Studiocanal
Cast: Michael Caine, Charlie Cox, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone, Paul Whitehouse, Michael Gambon, Francesca Annis
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Joe Penhall
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
Editors: Jinx Godfrey, Nick Moore
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Sales company: Studiocanal, London
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