Another filmmaker who is undoubtedly destined to join his homegrown contemporaries on the strength of his work here is Choi Dong-hun. The director has fashioned a fun and sprightly heist caper here – a film which feels tailor-made for an international audience. There are definite shades of Ocean’s 11 and more than a passing nod to the slickness and visceral, balletic thrills of the ‘Mission Impossible’ series. But if the The Thieves feels a mite derivative from time to time, it manages to forge its own winning personality via the good-natured and appealingly broad humour on display, and Dong-hun’s terrific grasp of action and pacing. This guy could seriously run rings around the likes of Michael Bay and Len Wiseman.
A team of (unfeasibly photogenic) Korean career criminals embark on a trip to Hong Kong, teaming up with a rival gang who are intent on nabbing the illustrious Tear of the Sun diamond. Stored in the seemingly impenetrable vault of a large casino, the thieves plan on selling it on to fearsome Chinese gangster Wei Hong, whose infamous safecracker mistress initially stole the artefact.
Things don’t run quite as smoothly as anticipated however, as the mastermind behind the scheme, Macau Park (The Chaser’s Kim Yoon-seok) has a fractured past relationship with two members of the Korean gang – an incident where the old adage ‘honour amongst thieves’ was severely tested. With scores to settle and trust issues factoring into the partnership between the two groups, can they pull off the robbery, or will their personalities get in the way and muck everything up?
Currently the highest grossing movie in Korean film history, it’s easy to see how The Thieves could have achieved that feat. The effort to thoroughly entertain is felt through every frame of the film, and Dong-hun has a managed to assemble a fantastic bunch of similarly eager-to-please actors, who bring a playfulness and warmth to their roles.
The sleek jazzy soundtrack pays homage to those stylised 60’s spy capers, but it’s not all light-heartedness, as the post-heist action and violence intensifies. Imagine Danny Ocean and his crew suddenly stumbling into an 80’s era John Woo setpiece and that’s close to how things turn out in the latter half. In that sense it’s almost a film of two halves, yet this shift doesn’t jar, and instead it manages to keep things thundering along to the frenetic conclusion (a thrilling, gravity-defying three-way shoot-out, which sees characters tear and twist around the sides of a building via bungle ropes, has to be seen to be believed).
At 136 minutes, it wouldn’t have harmed the film to perhaps lose a couple of extraneous scenes here and there (one character’s backstory seems to fizzle away to nothing, having been carefully established) but overall, The Thieves offers the kind of unadulterated, unpretentious sense of fun and excitement which is largely lacking in many US products of a similar nature.