From the seminal (The Italian Job) to the near unwatchable (Going in Style), Michael Caine is no stranger to heist movies. For that matter, neither are Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone, or Paul Whitehouse, which appears to be the chief reason the elderly Brits were assembled for James Marsh’s King of Thieves. Through a bit of cinematic trickery, footage of each in 60s and 70s crime joints (Billy Liar, Scum, etc.) is spliced into the narrative to serve as both loving tribute to the venerable veterans and as homage to an age of bygone filmmaking, à la Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. Unfortunately, this slick move, ultimately called upon too infrequently to function properly, is one of only a few handy maneuvers Marsh holds in his arsenal in this middle-of-the-road heist flick.
Back in 2015, a group of senior citizens (Caine, Broadbent, Winstone, Courtenay, and Whitehouse) pulled off one of Britain’s greatest robberies when they nabbed roughly £14 million worth of treasures from Hatton Garden Safe Deposit in central London. Along with young computer wiz Basil (Charlie Cox), the grey-haired geezers accomplished the impossible, breaking into the heavily fortified vault and making out with more cash and jewels than they could count. However, the heist proved to be the easy part, as each of the thieves spent the days to follow looking over their shoulders, wary of both the law and one another.
It would be tempting to attribute all of the film’s misgivings to its messy, disjointed nature. Swinging wildly between tones, Joe Penhall’s (The Road, Mindhunter) clunky script will play its narrative light and loose one moment, with tired geriatric humor punctuated by the film’s jazzy soundtrack, and then, without logic or warning, it will begin addressing itself with deathly seriousness, believing the caper at its center to be both thrilling and genuinely shocking. However, the real issue with King of Thieves is its blind reliance on familiarity. Marsh and Penhall do have a few tricks up their sleeve, but they abandon them all one by one in order to play it safe. The film will routinely take risks, but it continuously proves itself far too timid to stand by them.
What’s more, beyond an unmistakably English charm and the simple fact that we are following their story, we are never given sufficient reason as to why we should root for our elderly crooks in their criminal quest. They aren’t victims of circumstance. They aren’t acting out of necessity. They haven’t been wronged by some sinister force outside of their control. Caine and company are motivated by the pure and lazy fact that they aren’t rich and they would like to be. Sure, there’s a half-hearted attempt to contemplate the all-consuming nature of unchecked greed, but the conversation fizzled out before it’s truly begun. King of Thieves doesn’t seem to have much of any desire to explore the minds of its real-life protagonists, so they arrive as little more than props to move the plot forward.
There’s a cozy, recognizable dependability to be found in King of Thieves, but for it to be enjoyable – or memorable, for that matter – it would either have to be a lot better or a little worse. Much of the film’s attempts at entertainment depend entirely on the viewer’s tolerance for cheap over-the-hill jokes (“What’s an eBay?”) and spitfire, needle drop editing. Too often King of Thieves feels like an extended episode of a forgettable tv series that didn’t make it to a second season. To borrow the brand of crude, hand-holding humor that the film so readily indulges in, King of Thieves is too flaccid to get the job done.