Sometimes, despite looking like it'll go one way within genre conventions, a movie surprises those watching with how it diverts from expectations; other times, it's shocking to see how tightly one might mirrors its influences. The Thieves garners both impressions: most of Choi Dong-hoon's film acts as if Stephen Soderbergh remade his remake of Ocean's Eleven through a proxy for the Korean market, then late in the game departs from its expected framework before it grows too familiar. No shortage of exhilarating, eye-grabbing filmmaking will be found in this by-the-numbers heist thriller; safe dials spinning, bodies rappelling down an apartment, and quick cuts between operation-prep scenes craft it into a modish display of what makes this one of cinema's most enduring genres. There's simply little ground here that hasn't been retreaded many times over, and despite charisma, polish, and an infectious momentum, it doesn't amount to much more than a routine character caper -- albeit, a rather entertaining one.
With the police hot on their trail following a long-con operation to procure a specific piece of art, a pack of high-caliber thieves -- led by a young but seasoned pro, Popeye (Lee Jung-jae, Typhoon) -- answer the call for a job in Macau in order to let the tension in Korea simmer down. The job, orchestrated by Popeye's defunct partner, Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok, The Chaser), involves combining two forces: the Korean crew and a cluster of equally-talented thieves from China, led by the graying veteran Chen (Simon Yam). Their directive involves breaking into a fairly high-security casino in order to snatch a diamond from its vaults, which might prove difficult considering the vast loyalty issues between both sides; while obvious distrust looms between two clusters of thieves whom don't know each other, there's also internal unrest within each one. As tensions mount and D-Day quickly approaches, they'll have to stomach each other's idiosyncrasies and flaws in order to nab their $20million jackpot.
The thieves themselves take center stage, naturally, establishing an atmosphere of stratagems and second-guessing as their actions bare their moral standpoints, motivations, and impulses while they're burrowed in their hideouts. Choi Dong-hoon juggles a bevy of shifting character types -- dueling female rogues, a wire expert (Gianna Jun) and a safe cracker (Kim Hye-soo), competing for superiority; aging veterans Chewingum (Kim Hae-sook) and Chen wanting to get out of the game; and a dense dullard and a much-younger upstart -- as they serve their purposes, weaving a varied tonal fabric that underscores the weatherworn "honor among thieves" concept with bickering and grandstanding, hefty drinking and happenstance romance. Flashbacks also offer glimpses into the ways that some of them once knew each other, the backstabs and romances drenched in steely-styled cinematography, portraying a clear emotional arc as the day draws nearer. There's a lot going on, at times excessively so, and some of those connections get lost in a tangle of crossed wires.
Choi Dong-hoon's perspective on the casino caper itself is polished, methodical, and candidly exhilarating, yet it also lacks the diversity from its Western contemporaries to distract from its doting rhythm. Glossy modernized photography captures bleeding yellow lighting and the sleek metal sheen on gears and dials, framing safe-crackers and pistol-wielders in an ultra-modern aesthetic that doesn't linger long enough on the rogue's gallery to label a hero among them. Its familiarity doesn't go unobserved, however, since every step of The Thieves reveals page after page taken from Soderbergh's playbook, from the diversions and meetings prior to the heist to the hot-potato editing between brisk moments. The momentum it generates largely masks these concerns, though; the context, offhand humor, and empathy imparted by the rogues themselves shape the thrashing twists and turns into bracing chartbuster entertainment. But a pronounced sense of déjà vu eases up little amid the bustle.
That is, until The Thieves plays its hand. Eventually, Choi Dong-hoon adopts a cavalier attitude with the caper's trajectory, not only leaving the audience uncertain of where the outcome will arrive, but also who will make it out of the deadly chase at all. The shaky camaraderie among the rogues becomes ripe for moral grayness and cutthroat scheming, unraveling in a volatile, noticeably more stark fashion that doesn't shy away from death or allowing none of its characters to appear virtuous. Again, though, the plotting grows too convoluted for its own good; a blur of car crashes, gunfire, face prosthetics and back-alley dealings destine this heist-thriller to remain obfuscated by its own mundane maze of details, more compelled to knee-jerk reactions than confidently sticking the landing. The unraveling of Choi Dong-hoon characters takes precedent here, though, the roguish sarcasm and inner turmoil embracing his stylized outlook on a weatherworn genre. Danny Ocean's crew this isn't, but they get the job done.
Video and Audio:
The Thieves relies heavily on its chic, industrial style for its overarching tone, which Well Go USA cracks into the Blu-ray spectrum with a compelling 2.35:1-framed 1080p presentation. Vivid yellows and oranges bleeding over to garments and gunshots comingle with steely blues and grays, concisely rendered in the action scenes with sharp awareness of contrast shifts and textural authenticity. The fluctuation of metallic tones on dials and cranking gears really impresses, while the intricate detail of flexible snake scopes, the print on money, and the notches on artillery sustain that atmosphere. When the focus falls on the thieves themselves, the photography's graceful focus on skin tones, sweaty brows, and ruffled hair really keeps the viewer locked into their physical situation, the Blu-ray disc nimbly working with those elements to create a polished presence. You'll spot black levels that are too deep and unavoidable softness in a few areas, but they're infrequent against the stylized intentions.
The 5.1 Korean/Chinese Master Audio treatment isn't one to lurk in the shadows, either: the subtle sounds of spinning dials and retracting wires dominate the sound design, sure, but vigorous gunfire and intense car-chase effects telegraph some pretty aggressive punches where it's needed. There are points which really surprised me with rear-channel activity, too, such as the shattering of glass and the bustle of foot chases. The presence of dialogue remains satisfyingly buoyant and aware enough of the surrounding atmosphere to satisfy, while the vivacious score picks up the slack for the mood whenever it's needed. Vigorousness of the track is most welcome, since the subtitles aren't, unfortunately, as concise and convincing as I'd like; between a lack of annotation over who's speaking during a multi-person conversation (to which you'll eventually get acclimated) to some curious lapses in English clarity and occasional grammatical hiccups, these subtitles -- while suitable enough to enjoy the film's humor and charisma -- lack attentiveness. At least it has a sprawling, engaging aural backing to distract from that.
Supplements aren't in much supply here with Well Go USA's Blu-ray of The Thieves. Outside of a Theatrical Trailer (1:38, HD), two short featurettes have been included: a brief but interesting Making Of (5:51, HD) piece, which offers glimpses into how the fast-moving director orchestrates scenes and stunts while filming in practical sets; and a Meet the Thieves (4:33, HD) bit that offers pedestrian explanation of the characters. Both behind-the-scenes features offer interesting-enough glimpses at the construction of the film to justify the time spent on their press-kit manner, alongside interviews with the director and his cast.
While altogether too reminiscent of Ocean's Eleven and other heist pictures of its kind, The Thieves harnesses that formula and creates its own brisk, twisty story of fluctuating motivations among less-than-trustworthy rogues. This Korean blockbuster, which is among the region's top-grossing films, hits a suitable balance between humor and tension as it explores those who crack safes, scale buildings, and con others for a living -- and while the tactics it employs are familiar, both visually and tonally, they're also relatively absorbing in this particular context. The areas where it slumps in originality are spruced up by solidly-executed action and intriguing moments of identification with the thieves themselves, and it leads into a chaotic finale that's all the better because of how Choi Dong-hoon focused on those strengths. Well Go USA's Blu-ray presents the clean, stylized audiovisual experience in robust fashion, which earns this heist-thriller a mild Recommendation for enthusiasts of the genre or those looking for a solid caper.