The story and characters begin well. Semi-retired career criminal Brian Reader (Michael Caine) has a night out with his wife, Lynne (Francesca Annis, Lady Macbeth in the Roman Polanski film). They adore one another, but she's clearly ill, despite her best attempts to hide her painful condition. The next scene is her wake, Brian trying his best to disguise his heartache. Also in attendance are a number of other aging villains, including Terry Perkins (Jim Broadbent), John "Kenny" Collins (Tom Courtenay), Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse), and Danny Jones (Ray Winstone).
Electronics/surveillance expert Basil (Charlie Cox, Daredevil), visiting the inconsolable Brian, asks the 77-year thief (Caine was actually nearly 85 at the time of filming) to mastermind the burglary and subsequent fencing of stolen goods from the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit. Despite their myriad health problems (two with diabetes, one hard-of-hearing, etc.), the others join in the caper. So far, so good.
After the first 40 minutes or so King of Thieves, like the crime it depicts, unravels spectacularly. There are many reasons for this, all interrelated. The first problem is the direction and editing supervision of James Marsh, heretofore known as the director of several fine documentaries, including Man on Wire (2008), and the biographical drama The Theory of Everything (2014). His direction and editing of King of Thieves draws attention to itself: quick postmodern cutting of the type geared for short attention-span viewers. That the thieves slowly hobble unsteadily with replaced hips only accentuates the contrast. In scenes where they're all together the incessant cutting frequently denies viewers the opportunity to study the faces and reactions of the thieves to what's happening around them.
Further, even though its story is told from their point of view, Joe Penhall's screenplay also frequently cuts away to the constant mad scrambling of investigators, poring over CCTV footage on computers. Three primary characters are perfunctorily introduced, but they have almost no dialogue, and are completely unnecessary. An early scene showing the proliferation of CCTV cameras, and the thieves' inability to cope with modern technology (Courtenay's character insists his computer doesn't come with eBay) is more than enough. Why show the threat our main characters can't see?
At one point I was struck by a cutaway to a helicopter flying over the crime scene, apparently shot from a drone above looking straight down and presented in slow-motion. It's a visually interesting shot, and could not have been cheap to stage, yet like most of this material serves no purpose.
Also serving no clear purpose is the seemingly random integration of old movie clips, from The Italian Job (of course), but also Billy Liar, Scum, Robbery, and even The Sweeny (either the TV series, feature film, or both). As much to remind viewers of the actors' past glories as the past lives of the story's characters, the use of these clips has none of the impact the filmmakers seem to think it has. (Adding to the confusion, these clips include snippets of long-dead actors not in King of Thieves, like George Sewell and Barry Foster.) The use of popular songs is even worse. The songs themselves are okay, e.g., Shirley Bassey's "The Party's Over," but their use is either thuddingly literal and obvious (The Turtles "Happy Together" after the heist, for instance) or, in the case of one song heard at the beginning of Lynne's wake, wildly intrusive.
The biggest problem though is that the screenplay is all over the place, a monumental mismatched jumble of genre clichés. There's a lot of deadpan humor straight out of The Italian Job, but also moments of hardcore villainy in the style of the Michael Caine-Mike Hodges Get Carter. (Broadbent, cast against type, is convincingly intimidating in these latter scenes.) Instead of a generally humorous story that turns dark, the tone is merely herky-jerky, lacking linear momentum. Given the second-half is dominated by dishonor among the thieves, a better model might have been Claude Sautet's French thriller Classe tous risques (1960), with Caine's part functioning much like Lino Ventura's in that classic film.
All this is not to say King of Thieves is terrible; the cast alone, indeed Caine alone, makes it worth seeing once, but it does so disappoint. Although his last two decades have been dominated by supporting parts in high-concept movies like the Dark Knight and remakes of earlier Caine hits that, for the most part, squander his abilities, he's still has managed to headline the occasional film, the best of which is probably Harry Brown (2009), a compelling vigilante drama. He's terrific here even if the movie is not. That the script and to some extent the direction lack the confidence to stick to his story throughout the film is frustrating, but that's not Caine's fault.
Similarly, Broadbent, Courtenay, Winstone, and Michael Gambon (as an alcoholic, doddering fence) all have nice little moments peppered throughout the film, though in the end they're wasted, too.
Video & Audio
Shot digitally, King of Thieves is presented in ‘scope format and, as with the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, up to contemporary standards. Optional English subtitles are included, along with a digital copy. Region "A" encoded.
The lone extra is a brief (about 12 minutes) making-of featurette, with sound bites from members of the cast and crew.
Despite its great cast and real potential for dark comedy and/or drama, King of Thieves greatly disappoints with its distracting direction, editing, music choices, and lack of anything like a consistent aim. Still worth a look for its cast, but it comes nowhere close to its potential. Rent It.