Director: James Marsh
Cast: Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Charlie Cox, Tom Courtney, Paul Whitehouse with Michael Gambon and Ray Winstone
Plot: A group of retired criminals plan to pull off an unprecedented robbery of the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit.
King of Thieves is a film of two halves. The first half is exactly what you expected from a film about a group of ageing thieves pulling off an audacious heist. Career criminal turned honest civilian has his wife die on him and finds himself with a load of free time. Coaxed into the idea of stealing over £200 million in jewels and cash from the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit by a younger friend who has a way in, the criminal, Brian Reader, assembles a time of old-fashioned crooks for the heist to pull off all other heists. To a point, this feels like a smaller scale Ocean’s Eleven movie, perhaps the second reboot of 2018 in a way. However, while Ocean’s 8 was a flashy blockbuster affair that put emphasis on cool and stylish, King of Thieves finds a different set of thrills. For one, its major advantage on any of the Ocean movies is that it is based on a true story. Sometimes this can be a problem in the fact there are no carpet-pulling twists or convoluted ways of going about getting past obstacles. Sometimes the way the gang get past a locked door is that one of the crew knows someone who knows someone who has a key. But what a true story does do is get you hooked in the smaller details. There is something gripping about knowing that these men actually did the things they do. One moment sees the gang have to stay stock still, because a security guard is poking his nose around the outside of the building. In that short moment, the tension is more real than it has ever been in an Ocean’s film. It doesn’t matter that you know what happens to the characters, because this is based on a true story. By the time you are knee deep in the heist, you have bought into the characters and the events. Criminal history is always more thrilling than any other kind of true story.
But the more interesting thing about King of Thieves is when it breaks away into the second half. Perhaps director Marsh knew that the heist element wasn’t quite enough. For one, we know what happened, which kills the thrill of the conclusion. But also there have been other films of the Hatton Garden robbery and while King of Thieves is definitely going to be classed as the definitive drama of the events, it needed to be more than a story about the crime to justify its creation. Therefore, Marsh strikes up a new tone halfway through and shows how the criminals crumbled around each other in the days following the heist. This is where things get a lot more interesting. With the Oceans films, a part of you really wants to be that uber-cool criminal stealing riches from under arrogant people’s noses. King of Thieves makes sure it never glorifies its characters, highlighting them as criminals. The heist might be good fun, but the back-stabbing and greed that unravelled the old friends is definitely not enviable. It starts slow with the crass humour, bullying out smaller members of the gang. Then shares are not split equally. Everyone takes a bit for themselves. By the end, it isn’t so much a film about traitors, but a film where everyone is so convinced that they are going to be betrayed, they become their own worst enemies. There is no such thing as the camaraderie present in the Ocean’s films. The real shock of King of Thieves is realising that these loveable rogues are nastier than you originally realised. Clips of their dark pasts show up. Old criminal tendencies flare up. It adds a surprising kick to the end of King of Thieves, as you get a satisfyingly meaty direction to what could have been a by-the-numbers crime thriller.
Of course, the best thing about the sudden change of pace, and the film in general, is the fact that it gives the veteran cast a terrific playground to tear into some new roles. You have to feel for Charlie Cox, who actually gives an interesting subtle reading to the character of Basil, but he gets lost in the excitement of having such amazing actors at hand here. As the film goes through its fun heist element, the cast are merely tapping into that natural charisma. Ray Winstone is the wise-cracking hard man. Michael Caine harkens back to his glory days, almost feeling like he is back on the set of Italian Job. However, while it is delightfully nostalgic, King of Thieves doesn’t feel like it is pushing anyone. Then the second half’s defamation of the characters happens and some great performances are pulled out. The actors’ charisma gives way to ugly nastiness. Jim Broadbent is rarely this good, proving that despite his extensive filmography, he can still surprise an audience with some good, old-fashioned acting. Tom Courtenay spends most of the film hiding under the guise of comic relief, but in the final throes of the film, deeper characterisation emerges. And then there is Michael Caine, who is an actor so easily weighed down by his own successes. As soon as he opens his mouth with his cockney accent, he almost becomes a stereotyping of himself. It makes it all the more wonderful when Caine gets a chance to once again engage the audience with a thoughtful piece of characterisation. That alone, no matter the reception King of Thieves ends up getting, makes this film one worth watching regardless.
Final Verdict: A standard true crime flick evolves into something more interesting, especially in terms of the performances.