There are three things that King of Thieves has to figure out before it’s getting a tan in Margate:
First, you’ve got a story that most people watching already know the basic facts to, the 2015 Hatton Gardens robbery. An audience knowing the resolutions can sap the drama if you’re not being alert (also not helped by the existence of a previous film about this, 2017’s The Hatton Garden Job).
Second, the moment the event happened every man and his dog was saying it should be a film. That means the details could slapstick and broad. If you’re not careful the real can feel forced.
Third. Michael Caine stated in 2016 he’d do a film about the robbery ‘in an instant’. When a legend says that, the film with him the lead becomes obligatory and you’re looking at a bit of Barney Rubble.
King of Thieves had some big obstacles to climb if it wanted to pull this all off, and in the end it frankly doesn’t.
What primarily separates it from the previous film about the geriatrics who teamed up for one last job is higher production values.
London looks polished yet accessible, and a nice touch from director James Marsh is brief flashes back to the gang’s 70s heyday without lapsing into mawkish overkill.
In front of the camera a solid team has been assembled. The most affecting scene may be the first, as Brian Reader (Michael Caine) spends some moments in the nicer parts of London with his terminally ill wife (Martha Howe-Douglas). In all of the capers and banter to follow, nothing captures the profound fears of getting old more than here.
Jim Broadbent is another great performer. It was hard to tell with Michael Gambon as to how much he was putting on with the senility act, and Charlie Cox as ‘Basil’ adds something different as the youngest addition to the vault breaking team.
The standout performance is from Ray Winstone, the only one of the gang that authentically feels like a bank robber. I do know someone who’s done time for armed robberies, and his similarities to Winston’s temper beneath the smiles at times made me grin inappropriately.
King of Thieves had to really push the boat out to make a memorable film. Alas in the time honoured fashion of the producers of Darkest Hourand Legend, this feels like a biopic BritFlick made from as much rote necessity as genuine creative passion.
King of Thieves is also made to appeal to what is known as the ‘grey pound’- something that appeals to a conservative older audience. Stylistically, aesthetically, structurally, there is nothing remotely radical here. It’s all about as easy to wash down as a cold cup of tea.
For different motivations, another film about British career criminal that fell flat for me was Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson. There was too much glum introspection in both to take the potentially explosive subject material and run with it. For a film so dependant on banter as King of Thieves, the dialogue is far too unmemorable.
The script is however aware that it’s not the heist that makes the drama it’s the fallout afterwards. The film’s standout scene is as tempers flare and old loyalties are strained as the loot gets divvied.
Unfortunately the film is quickly trapped in a cycle of badmouthing and complaining while the plot grinds to a halt. By the time the inevitable comes the film had long run out of steam.
The film also plays into the Brexiteer’s fantasy of when ‘Britain was British’ to the point of a newscaster unaware of the culprits musing ‘does Britain have to import its criminals too?’.
In what I hope was a more artistic reason than fulfilling BAFTA guidelines a lead investigator into the robbery is a black woman. As new technology proves the gang’s foil, the message can certainly be read as a gang of old white men capering in cosmopolitan London getting caught out by a world overtaking them.
The are moments of good comedy in King of Thieves, mostly in the hands of Tom Courtenay’s narcoleptic technophobe. Michael Caine does everything he can with the material, and remains as competent a performer as ever. There’s just a feeling there wasn’t enough material to stretch into a feature film here, which is a shame for filmmaker and audience alike.