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Film Review: King of Thieves

20 September 18 words: Gemma Finch

Sir Michael Caine and Ray Winstone stars in the big-screen story of the Hatton Garden Heist...

Director: James Marsh

Starring: Michael Caine, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent

Running time: 108 mins

The poorly titled King of Thieves centres on a real-life crime committed in 2015, in which a crew of elderly career criminals stole millions of pounds worth of jewellery from London’s famous Hatton Gardens vault, in a clandestine heist over the Easter bank holiday weekend. What begins as a light-hearted and comedic retelling of a group of aging crook’s last criminal hurrah, the film soon turns into a grittier affair centring on paranoia and greed. Tonally, this film doesn’t know what it wants to be, and suffers as a result.

The film has an all-star cast comprising of Sir Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone, Charlie Cox and Paul Whitehouse. Cox and Whitehouse aside, this is the go-to cast list of British actors of a certain age and calibre, the equivalent of casting a film about younger men doing a heist with all the obvious Hollywood male thirty-somethings (all seemingly called Chris). My point being, that the casting choices may not be necessarily the most fitting, but are an indicator that the film wanted to go down a route where our preconceived love of the actors was the film’s main selling point, not necessarily their similarity to their real-life counterparts. 

The highlight of the film is the heist itself. What we see unfold is identical to images of the real-life crime scene, which provides some satisfaction that this film was well-researched, at least in this respect. However, the planning of the heist is unfortunately shown mostly in montage. These scenes could have been the best time for the film to solidify the group’s dynamic and make the audience have more investment in their aim. It doesn’t waste much time with advanced characterization or backstory, instead focussing more on Michael Caine’s character than the others.

Sir Michael Caine is (quite rightly) a beloved actor, but this fondness seems to have compromised the way his character is presented. The film begins with his character, Brian Reader, the heist’s ringleader, having dinner with his wife – he is a charming gentleman who clearly dotes on her, and appears to pay credence to her plea for him to go straight. With abrupt tragedy, the next scene shows her funeral. Brian, like the rest of the gang he convenes with at the funeral and consequently plans the heist with, is a career criminal with no higher moral standing than the rest, yet the film oddly lingers on his empty house and his loneliness after her death to endear him to us. King of Thieves is arguably three films in one, each narrative straining for dominance and at odds with the other, with the sympathetic tale of Brian being the first film’s storyline. The second film works tirelessly to let us know that this is a light-hearted film, and these are a comedic group of loveable aging rogues with ailing minds and bodies, poking fun at each other’s ailments in a cheerful way that the audience happily laughs along with. The third film presents the narrative that these are hardened, selfish, paranoid, vicious criminals, and that there is no honour among thieves.

The old masculinity is black and white, old, dead. What worked then doesn’t work now.

Other casting choices are equally dubious. Tom Courtenay plays Johnny ‘Kenny’ Collins, the comedic member of the gang who by the end of the film fits into the paranoid and selfish category and is abruptly dislikeable. The theatrical and slightly flamboyant Cortnenay plays the comedic role far better, but for his character to end up as a snivelling backstabbing one, I believe another actor would have been more convincing. If the light tone was present throughout the film then he would have had his place, despite being wholly unconvincing as an aging career criminal. Ray Winstone was also under-used - his character, Danny Jones, rather than being a loveable rogue is purely nasty and unlikeable, which is never the case usually with his characters, even when they are criminals. His light-hearted insults are often on the more malicious side of the scale, particularly when talking about Charlie Cox’s character, Basil. Little is known about the real Basil, due to his wisely-donned disguise during the heist, but in this film, he functions as a punching bag for the gang, when they go through their sudden respective personality transplants after the robbery. Interestingly, the filmmakers cast the younger Cox as Basil, and while characterized as weak and awkward, he is technologically savvy, and is the one that gets away with the lion’s share of the loot. Perhaps this is the film’s attempt at making the old men look useless in a young man’s world. Basil isn’t the epitome of traditional masculinity, but in the new world, it is your ability to change with the times that gets you success. Whether characterized as light hearted or vicious, one thing was clear from the film – the older characters were not exactly presented as slick and competent, with the police officers who catch them (no lines of dialogue for them, just montages of them doing their job) being young, which wasn’t the case in reality.

The film was watchable, the unconvoluted retelling being enough for me to be carried along for the duration, at least. The story took no risks, and the same can be said of its stylistic flair, which in a different director’s hands could have been amped up, which is always enjoyable in heist films. What is present stylistically however are the occasional black and white flashback glimpses of the characters in their prime, which can be viewed as further insight into the commentary the filmmakers are trying to make - that the old masculinity is black and white, old, dead. What worked then doesn’t work now.

When I saw the story of the heist unfolding in the news three years ago, my first thought was it’d make a good film. Not because I wanted to see a film about the capture of a group of useless old has-beens who are analogue criminals in a digital world, but to see a group of older men, who are marginalized and often patronized, pull off the greatest bank heist in British history with jubilant panache. I wanted to be carried along with their crazy ride, and then be disappointed when they got caught. I wanted to see them reflect upon, either internally or outwardly, their own shortcomings which made them redundant in a strange new world of crime. To have a film made that glorifies in such a rare and atypical crime that will never be replicated would surely not be morally bankrupt but would appeal to our natural human curiosity. I would much rather King of Thieves picked a tone, a moral stance, and had strength in its convictions and ran with them, rather than making three films in one to cover all bases, and produce a watered-down vision.

Did you know? Ray Winstone, who plays Danny Jones in the film, went to school with the real Danny Jones.

King of Thieves is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 27 September

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