Based on the true story of the “largest burglary in English legal history”, the British crime film ‘King of Thieves’ opens with two very brief scenes of an elderly couple still deeply in love. Brian Reader (Michael Caine, ‘Now You See Me’ franchise) and his wife Lynne (Francesca Annis, 'Dune') enjoy an intimate dinner and riverside stroll, as if their blissful sunset years will go on forever... until she suddenly dies. Caine brings home Brian's grief with a single line, “I can't believe that she will never walk through that door again.” His softly-spoken young protégé Basil (Charlie Cox, Netflix's ‘Daredevil’) is sympathetic but there is little he can do to help.
However, some of Brian’s old cronies in crime succeed in persuading him that the vacuum in his life can be filled by robbing the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company, an underground safe deposit facility in London's Hatton Garden area. “If you don't have a go, somebody else will,” proves yet again to be a winning argument. Brian's perspective reflects how much of a proud professional he is. “If you enjoy doing this fucking job you’re not doing it properly,” he lectures young Basil. He adds a different perspective for himself: “I am allowed to enjoy; it gives purpose.”
The old geezers lined up for the job are the sheepish but deceptively cunning Kenny (Tom Courtenay, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society'), youthful (at 60) tough guy Danny (Ray Winstone, ‘Jawbone') and the malevolent Terry (Jim Broadbent, ‘Paddington 2', cast against type). Added to this distinguished collection of fossils is Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse, ‘Ghost Story') and fence Billy "The Fish" Lincoln (Michael Gambon, the ‘Harry Potter’ series).
They all employ their old-school thieving skills (accompanied by a deafeningly intrusive - but in a good way - jazz-style soundtrack by Benjamin Wallfisch) to plan the heist over the Easter holiday weekend, when there will be no staff on duty and less close circuit surveillance. Posing as servicemen, they enter the deposit, neutralise the alarms, and proceed to drill a hole into the wall of the safe, but problems with the drilling device and disagreements cause Reader to drop out. Two days later, the rest of the gang crawl through the hole into the safe, break into hundreds of safe deposit boxes, finding over £200 million worth of diamonds, gold, and other jewellery. When police are called to the scene and start investigating the burglary, the cracks between the misfit gang members begin to show as they row over how to share the goods and become increasingly distrustful of each other...
With this dream team of wrinkly old British acting royalty, expectations are high. That is where the disappointment lies.
Michael Caine played two of British cinema’s most iconic criminals in ‘Get Carter’ and ‘The Italian Job’. Ray Winstone has portrayed all manner of thugs, peaking with his nuanced turn in Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Sexy Beast’. Charlie Cox’s breakout role was as an Irish mobster in HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’. Before Michael Gambon became beloved by children everywhere as Albus Dumbledore, he essayed the most vicious English gangster of all time in Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’.
These actors could play hypnotically-watchable crims in their sleep. So why is ‘King of Thieves’ so incredibly fucking boring?
Wizened, tremulous fingers must be pointed at the screenplay of Joe Penhall, which scrimps on characterisation and memorable dialogue, and the direction of James Marsh. ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, ‘The King’ and ‘Shadow Dancer’ were bold, original films. ‘Man on Wire’ and ‘Project Nim’ were fascinating documentaries. But ‘The Theory of Everything', an Oscar darling and by far his most popular film, was also his worst and it seemed to have uncorked a real laziness and lack of energy in his filmmaking style (see: ‘The Mercy’ for further reference).
Michael Caine. Ray Winstone. Charlie Cox. Michael Gambon. These actors could play hypnotically-watchable crims in their sleep. So why is ‘King of Thieves’ so incredibly fucking boring?
‘King of Thieves’ noticeably suffers in comparison to Bart Layton's recent ‘American Animals', another true tale, this time about young impressionable U.S. college students who, by way of an attempted heist at their own University library, aimed to get rich quick whilst simultaneously making a name for themselves. Whilst both films are similar in their subject matter, it's the manner in which the respective protagonists go about their nefarious deeds and the way it's presented that couldn't be any more different.
In Layton's ‘American Animals’, a combination of anxiety, lack of experience and a general naivety ultimately prove to be the boys' undoing, whereas Michael Caine and his grizzly cohorts couldn't really have been any more lackadaisical in their approach if they'd tried. This is mirrored is James Marsh’s directorial style, which is flat, dull and largely unengaging, whereas Layton’s film uses all manner of experimentation with form (including a faux documentary technique) to suck the audience into the narrative.
As is usually the case with true crime films, and often the wider genre, there's still a general sense of glamorisation, but it's thankfully mitigated slightly by a paranoia-fuelled latter-half and a focus on the bickering and back-stabbing that comes with being a curmudgeonous old crook out to get the most cash he can, even at the cost of his so-called "friends". It's this segment of the film that picks up the pace and provides the most suspenseful, engaging and even surprising sequences that any version of this specific story (there are four and counting) has ever conjured up.
Still, ‘King of Thieves’ never really reaches beyond a limited scope of both investment and, sadly, enjoyment. It also never really meets the genre standards associated with the "heist" moniker that its narrative is so evocative of. Frankly, it's a sluggish bore.