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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

King of Thieves

The biggest robbery in British history makes for dull, formulaic viewing in this star-studded affair.
By Sarah Ward
February 28, 2019
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King of Thieves

The biggest robbery in British history makes for dull, formulaic viewing in this star-studded affair.
By Sarah Ward
February 28, 2019
  shares

When millennials reach their twilight years, Zac Efron might be singing his way through Retirement Home Musical, Blue Ivy Carter could win an Oscar for cinema's latest big hit musical biopic — about her mother, naturally — and the Stranger Things kids may've become the go-to grizzled crackpots in every sci-fi film and TV show around. No offence meant to any of them, but that's what popular culture does. Nostalgia never dies, so the entertainment industry keeps recycling the same things for the same audience, just in an era-appropriate fashion. And it'll keep doing so, long past the point when Fast & Furious 89: Now We're Fast, Furious and Fragile zooms into theatres.

For a current example — a predecessor to an elderly Vin Diesel and The Rock still doing what they do, perhaps — look no further than the old geezer heist genre. In recent years, it keeps serving up veteran actors reliving their heydays with varying degrees of success. When it's done in a smart, soulful and insightful manner,the Robert Redford-starring The Old Man and the Gun is the end result. When ease, laziness and cashing in are the aim of the game instead, you get Michael Caine's two latest jaunts across Australia's big screens: 2017's Going In Style and now King of Thieves.

In the former film, Caine played a desperate Brooklyn resident who robs a bank with his usually law-abiding pals (Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin). In the latter, he's a seasoned cockney crim doing what all seasoned crims do eventually, or so the movies tell us. Reuniting with his fellow retired crook friends (Tom Courtenay, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone and Paul Whitehouse) after the death of his wife, Caine's Brian Reader plans one last London job over the Easter long weekend. Their target is a Hatton Garden safe deposit facility filled with cash, gold and jewels to the tune of £14 million, and they've got help from the much younger 'best alarm specialist in London', aka Basil (Charlie Cox).

There's a moment early in King of Thieves that epitomises the film's bland, routine approach. The movie's five main elderly Englishmen stand around in a workshop, plotting their high-stakes scheme and rallying against today's high-tech ways — the internet is overrated, most of them decide. Then Basil walks in. The mood instantly turns frosty, complete with shots of horrified faces from Winstone's hard man, Broadbent's wildcard, Courtenay's doddering gent and Whitehouse's outsider. Caine abstains, but only because it's his character that's brought the newcomer in on the plan. In mere seconds, director James Marsh summarises the entire picture: old dogs, an aversion to new tricks and a story that keeps emphasising both. There's a few narrative twists, a dose of duplicity and treachery, and plenty of greed complicating matters, however there's never any doubt about where the whole thing is going.

You'd never guess that Marsh has a duo of excellent documentaries to his name in Man on Wire and Project Nim, before he started turning true tales into standard dramas with The Theory of Everything, The Mercy and now King of Thieves. Similarly, that screenwriter Joe Penhall created stellar serial killer series Mindhunter will thoroughly escape your attention based on the dull material at hand. And King of Thieves is so broad and formulaic that you simply won't realise or care that it's based on reality, with the actual robbery carried out by geriatric criminals in 2015, and marking the largest theft in British history. The fact that the film flits awkwardly and unconvincingly between comedy and thriller doesn't help, and nor does its visually drab images, or some of the least exciting robbery scenes ever committed to celluloid.

Caine and his cronies, whose numbers also includes a dishevelled Michael Gambon looking far removed from his Dumbledore days, aren't blowing the bloody doors off anything either. How can they be when they're tasked with groan-inducing one-liners like "I don't care about prison life; it's the afterlife that worries me"? Indeed, when King of Thieves resorts to inserting brief clips of the silver-haired main crew in their younger, sprightlier years — taken from older, much better works on the actors' respective resumes — the result is as creaky as the cast's joints. They deserve better, as do the viewers.

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