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Review: King of Thieves (2018)

The biggest grey pound heist in British history

A review of King of Thieves

Sir Michael Caine and an all-star cast of British wrinklies bicker and creak their way through the audacious Hatton Garden heist that shuffles into an lacklustre crime caper. 

The Hatton Garden heist is the biggest robbery in British history since Bruce Reynolds slipped into a train conductor’s uniform and ransacked £2.6 million pounds (that’s £50 million quid in today’s money) from a Royal Mail train back in 1963. Surely, in 2015 a new breed of lithe, cunning and internet ready thieves, tunnelled their way into Hatton Garden’s safety deposit box vault and pinched jewellery, cash and gold to the tune of an estimated £300 million pounds…?                   

No. Maybe, ten or so years younger than The Great British Train Robbers, Brian Reader at 76 with his four man crew of old lags and a so-called security alarm expert, pulled off an audacious Easter Bank Holiday robbery that gripped the nation, and the wider world. So much so, King of Thieves is the third film adaption (this one is based on Mark Seal’s Vanity Fair article) in as many years. Easy money all around then, as the grey pound is still strong at the box-office (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel et al.) and there isn’t a shortage of British screen legends well beyond retirement age up for a bit of good old fashioned burglary. Sadly here, the facts get in the way of the fiction – watching a gang of diabetic pensioners execute an almost perfectly planned heist (the climatic high point of any crime caper) doesn’t make for a particularly thrilling or dramatic ride towards their inevitable stay behind bars.

We open on Brian Reader (Sir Micheal Caine) smelting gold in his industrial-sized garden shed intercut with black-and-white footage of the Hatton Garden vaults from the 1960s (cleverly nodding back to Caine’s Get Carter days). Very much into their winter years, Brian and his wife Lynne (Francesca Annis) stroll through their old London haunts fading into the city’s glass and steel modernity. They eat, drink and reminisce about Brian’s once swinging and ill-spent youth; “The problem with gold is the effect it has on people” – abruptly ended by Lynne’s trip to the bathroom, and her sudden death with little explanation. I guess, she was just too old.           

In the gloom of Lynne’s funeral, Brian reconnects with his old crew – Terry (Jim Broadbent), Kenny (Tom Courtenay), Danny (Ray Winstone), Basil (Charlie Cox), back slapping and needling each other, all itching to get back into the bank robbing game, thieves until their dying breath. But not the governor, Brian’s fighting to stay straight to honour Lynne’s wishes, and he mournfully shuffles into the life of a widower (“nothing prepares you for the silence of an empty house”)… Until Basil, soft spoken, asperger’s-like and a security alarm expert, dangles a front door key to the Hatton Garden vaults. But it’s the allure of purpose rather than riches and glory that pulls Brian back into his old life of crime. And he’s damn good at it, with an orthopaedic swing in his step, he assembles a rogues gallery of deaf, diabetic and incontinent retirees for one last heist.                         

It’s hard to believe, but director James Marsh fresh from his artfully realised and BAFTA winning Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, hands in the visual and dramatic equivalent of a washing up bowl brimming with grey water that’s only fit for an old allotment patch. Yes, cinematographer Danny Cohen’s suburban images of London’s residential streets, pubs and detached houses are really that flat and dull. The outstanding cast (really, they’re the film’s saving grace) are hampered by an uneven script from writer Joe Penhall (I liked his adaption of The Road) that casts Brian and his cohorts as loveable grandpas with Tourettes (they all say “fuck”, an awful lot) just up for a bit of mischief; until a jarring and thinly drawn internal power struggle turns them all into snarling mockney gangsters – some are even willing to pour petrol and flick matches at the weakest link in their crew Carl (Paul Whitehouse). No amount of Benjamin Wallfisch screaming jazz score can cover up the frankly flaccid pacing that frequently grinds to a halt – a broken hydraulic jack literally sends the octogenarian oceans home for an early night mid-heist. Yeah, I was yawning at that point too, boys.    

It may well have happened, no doubt. And it’s easy to see the real-life premise of a bunch of old buffers getting tooled up and nicking a king’s ransom in gold is an intriguing revaluation of criminality and ageing within society. But compared to the style, glamor and fantasy of the Ocean’s Eleven films, the hard reality of Brian Reader and his crew coming undone over their epic loot in a succession of back-stabbing scenes, where the characters stand, but mostly sit due to their aching bones, just isn’t that engaging to watch. The ending is a foregone conclusion, and yet very little attention is paid to the police work (almost comically silent) that brought the old geezers to justice, and that is the film’s biggest criminal failing.

Sir Michael Caine will always be the governor, from Gambit to The Italian Job, and Get Carter, he has a long cinematic history of playing crooks to comedic and dramatic effect. Oh, what could have been, as a tantalising moment before the credits roll a youthful Caine strides out of the shadows as Jack Carter, dangling the missed opportunity to play a little more fast and loose with the facts and make a fitting epitaph to one of his most famous roles. The same can be said of the rest of the fine cast, who’ve all played an iconic crook or two. Instead King of Thieves is just another lacklustre entry in the Hatton Gardens heist film canon, which is surely a list of films and television shows that is still growing…                         

King of Thieves may leave you wondering to yourself what is more precious, time or money? Sadly, it’s a film that wastes both of them.     

  • Sir Micheal Caine is the governor for life.
  • The facts get in the way of the fiction, robbing the film of any dramatic thrills and spills.

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