King of Thieves: a nasty little piece of work

King Of Thieves

King Of Thieves

“A load of lovely old crooks just having a laugh” is how one of the old boys in King Of Thieves describes the crew that pulled off the Hatton Gardens Job, the biggest robbery in British history. But King Of Thieves makes it quite clear that the old boys who broke into the Hatton Gardens vault were, charming old geezer images notwithstanding, they were thoroughly unlikeable blokes.

it’s a curious film, then. It starts with Brian (Michael Caine, playing, basically, Michael Caine, something he’s made a career out of and which he now does with little attempt to hide the fact), mourning the loss of his significant other Lynne (Francesca Annis), and befriending Basil (Charlie Cox, presumably looking to take Ben Wishaw’s role as Q in the next Bond film), who tells him that he can help get Brian and gang into The Hatton Gardens vault. Brian is reluctant, having promised Lynne that his robbing days were over, and clearly he doesn’t need the money. But Basil also speaks to Terry (Jim Broadbent) and Kenny (Tom Courtenay), who also enlist Danny (Ray Winstone) and Carl (Paul Whitehouse), and together they pull off the heist.

And all of this is disposed of in the first hour of the film. Director James Marsh promises to deliver a classic 60s-style crime caper, the kind of thing that Michael Caine would be right at home in, and there are moments when that kind of verve and sparkle do shine through, but for the most part, it’s a gritty, nuts-and-bolts heist film. There are a few tasty moments, as the crew assemble the kit for the job and then pull it off, montages with the swagger that you’d want from a film like this, but then the tone starts to shift. It’s clear that these are anything but “lovely old crooks;” indeed, what they really are is quite entirely unpleasant and nasty characters who have no truck with the notion of honour among thieves, and are much more interested in making sure they get their unfair share of the haul. Marsh has done a good job to get such ugly, nasty performances out of Broadbent and Courtenay, whose on-screen personae are rarely this foul. Caine finds a pleasing degree of venom, but his character, by far the most rounded and developed — indeed, it’s largely his film — is portrayed as just that bit more sympathetic than the others, despite the revelation toward the end (remember, this is based on a true story and real characters) that he was a suspected police-killer who had previously been involved in the Brink’s-Mat job. Winstone does his usual thing, playing the same extensively nasty piece of work he’s been portraying on screen since he was Carlin in Scum. Whitehouse is underused as Carl; his casting was, to be fair, an odd choice. And Michael Gambon appears to be having a lot more fun than the rest of the cast as Billy the Fish, the fence who is either drunk, or simple, or both.

It’s a very uneven film. It has moments of wanting to be a geriatric, cockney Ocean’s film (“Ocean’s 80” has been suggested as an alternative title), and the occasional flashbacks to the leads’ glory days suggest a desire to make a more capery film. But it’s an entirely more down-to-earth piece than that, the Las Vegas glamour of the Ocean’s films replaced by the kitchen of Terry’s suburban semi. And there is a very puzzling choice made by James Marsh when he brings in the police who brought the crew in. Ann Akin as DC Amy and Claire Lichie, her DS, are the two women who piece together the clues that identify the robbers, but while their pivotal and central role in solving the case is made quite clear, neither character has a single spoken line. It’s a very odd device, and hard to justify.

An odd film, then, and not an entirely pleasing one. Nasty men getting nastier and nastier with each other is a hard sell, and it’s not entirely clear that Marsh has pulled it off.

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