Lovable British rogues have enthralled cinema goers for the better part of a century in classic London crime capers like Brighton Rock, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Italian Job and The Long Good Friday, through to McVicar, Lock Stock, Sexy Beast and Legend (2015). Even when brandishing knuckle dusters, plotting to off little old ladies, threatening to shit the IRA or taking their shirts off (cas they’re “sweating like a c*%t”), these antiheroes have made a massive mark in cinema over the decades. Despite being synonymous with heist movies they are arguably a genre unto themselves yet, but while the widespread affection remains, there hasn’t been a truly memorable cockney/ London crime film or character for quite some time.
In 2015, the infamous Hatton Garden robbery, in which £200 million’s worth of cash and jewels were stolen from safety deposit boxes, provided film producers with the basis for a fresh and relevant take. The story struck a chord, not just due to the haul’s magnitude and pluck of the pilferers, but because those who carried it out were claiming state pensions. Whether or not the crooks were inspired by recent gun-toting cine-grandads like Stallone’s Expendables, the high octane pensioner knocking antics of Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves and everything Liam Neeson has been in since 2010, or whether it’s simply down to desperation or camaraderie, is hard to tell, but the downright audacity of the Hatton Garden gang was undeniable, and their story seemed to make the perfect foundation for a classic cockney crime picture.
Last year, Tower Block director Ronnie Thompson delivered a cut price account with The Hatton Garden Job, starring Phil Daniels and Larry Lamb as gang leader Brian Reader, which made little impact on release. There has also been Hatton Garden the Heist and Hatton Garden: One Last Job, starring Alan Ford. Now, Working Title, Studiocanal and director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything), have battle readied themselves with a rogue’s gallery of legendary acting veterans, many synonymous with crime cinema for King of Thieves. However, despite its arsenal, Marsh’s massively hashed bash flags on the screen like a flaccid handshake instead of the white knuckle punch one would have expected. This is mostly due to the script’s adherence to a stale heist template, like a blueprint, fashioned into a factory-made artifact with flat-pack action and slack panache.
The set up sees ex-con Brian Reader (Michael Caine) prepping one last job (sigh) with “whipper snapper” criminal Basil (Charlie Cox). Reader then reunites with and recruits old friends at his wife’s funeral. These include alpha rival Terry Perkins (Jim Broadbent), the doddery John Kenny Collins (Tom Courtenay), dope smoking allotment tenderer Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse) and crafty wide boy Danny Jones, while Michael Gambon’s Billy “the fish” Lincoln spends most of his screen time chasing marbles and pissing in places he shouldn’t. The group plan then action the robbery, but are met with obligatory setbacks.
Marsh employs incongruous camera work and an ill screen patina, sapped of colour and life. The script by Joe Penhall (The Road, Mindhunter), based on an article by Mark Seal, resounds like a discarded first draft Ocean’s sequel, lacking remotely likeable characters or arcs to make us care about them. Reader’s squadron of cantankerous, c-bomb dropping reprobates are presented as miffed off rascals with physical frailties utilised for archaic pratfalls and fart jokes. Humour is also derived from watching gangsters pack sandwiches, tackle incontinence and attempt to fathom Ebay while the heist story template is rigidly adhered to with step-by-step montages, exposition cramming narration and near the knuckle blunders that threaten to blow the lid. KOT tinkers on passing for a piece of entertainment, but is a world away from a work of art. The plot potters perfunctorily without meandering too laboriously yet is monotonous due to the lack of imagination, ingenuity, lovable characters and heart.
Despite some decent performances, nifty editing and punchy scenes, the clumpy dialogue, flat gags and patchy story-telling cripple King of Thieves. Penhall fails to extrapolate themes and facets, let alone efficiently incorporate arcs and character substance. Caine’s plastic cussing detracts from the charm instilled briefly via a smile he flashes at his wife during the set-up, hinting at that glimmer of affection that King of Thieves, its protagonists and the cockney criminal/ antihero lack. KOT is sadly not the crime classic it could have been, but a diabolical liberty. Or the blundered amalgamation of recent Caine films Going in Style and My Generation, offering little beyond the novelty of its central concept and prowess of an incredible cast. Sadly the only bungled crime committed here is the one against cinema.