A debonair caper that brings together Korean and Chinese cat burglars for a diamond heist in Macao, “The Thieves” owes much to the sparky gamesmanship and glamour casting of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean” series, as well as to the physical verve and unpretentious goofiness of ’90s Hong Kong actioners like John Woo’s “Once a Thief” (1991). Much could have gone wrong with this multilingual, country-hopping crowdpleaser, but helmer Choi Dong-hoon plays his cards right in terms of spectacle, drama and character bonhomie. Sold in eight Asian territories, South Korea’s reigning B.O. champ ($65 million locally) reps a steal even for far-flung markets.
While “The Thieves” employs some of the same cast and crew as Choi’s 2006 hit, “Tazza: The High Rollers,” including leads Kim Yun-seok and Kim Hye-soo, the two films are quite different in style and mood. With almost double the number of roles as “Tazza,” the new pic sacrifices some of its predecessor’s intriguing drama and noirish style in favor of a loving and accessible homage to Hong Kong action films; the daredevil stunts may defy gravity as well as logic, but they’re so stunning, one buys into them anyway.
The pic kicks off with a heist, as Yenicall (Gianna Jun) and Chewingum (Kim Hae-sook) bluff their way into a Seoul museum vault, with wire support from their partners Popie (Lee Jung-jae, “The Housemaid”) and Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun), who’s Korean-Chinese. Kim Hae-sook and Jun make an amusing duo, and Jun in particular turns heads with her dexterity, slipping in and out of skyscrapers as well as Chanel suits. The continual mixture of prankish slapstick and technical showmanship keeps the tone playful and unpredictable as the heavier plot gets underway.
Popie, the group’s de facto leader, gets an offer from Macao Park (Kim Yun-seok) to join him for a big job in the former Portuguese enclave, where Park earned his namesake as a cardsharp. Before setting off, they pick up Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo) from prison, who looks more like a fashion model than a jailbird. While money is ample incentive for mercenary Yenicall and no-nonsense Chewingum, Popie and Pepsee are driven by a desire to one-up Park.
The Korean gang gathers in Hong Kong for a rendezvous with Park, who has joined forces with Chinese ringleader Chen (Simon Yam) and his team: Jonny (Derek Tsang), Andrew (Oh Dal-soo) and expert safecracker Julie (Angelica Lee Sinje). Park reveals their target to be the “Tear of the Sun,” a legendary diamond owned by Tiffany, mistress of Chinese mafioso Wei Hong (Kee Kook-seo).
Park lays out a master plan to penetrate the Macao casino Tiffany plans to visit, an operation that doesn’t commence until at least an hour in. Nevertheless, watching the various protags banter in several languages makes the narrative preamble a pleasant one, and the film cultivates audience rapport with such grace notes as Chen’s charismatic entrance, commanding a jewelry shop holdup without breaking a sweat.
During the actual heist, the action splits in several directions, as sudden glitches force everyone to improvise. The effect is as dizzying as surveying several closed-circuit TV monitors at a glance, but Shin Min-kyung’s clean, punchy editing helps the overlapping scenes to cohere while generating a mood of excitement. The final stretch cranks up the action as the scenario shifts to Busan, where the elusive Wei Hong shows his claws.
Few Korean actioners lavish as much attention on their distaff thesps as this film does, to captivating effect. Jun, recovering the sassy groove of her earlier roles, performs stunts with swallow-like grace and more agility than Spider-Man. Yet the slinky, sensuous Kim Hye-soo gives her a run for her money; their characters’ ongoing rivalry calls forth the film’s cattiest, wittiest putdowns.
Also rare among Korean films is the light, relaxed approach to the male dynamics. Although propulsive shootouts and car chases abound, Korean-style macho bashings are thankfully absent, while distrust and one-upmanship are offset by chivalry and friendship. Even a wily old fox like Park shows an unexpected capacity for bravery, forgiveness and altruism; Kim Yun-seok, who’s emerging as one of Korea’s most compelling thesps, limns these qualities with bravado. Meanwhile, scene-stealer Yam displays the unflappable charm he’s honed to perfection in such Johnnie To films as “Sparrow,” making Chen’s fling with Chewingum the story’s most heartbreakingly romantic interlude.
Technical package is top-drawer without being excessively glossy. Here an elevator shaft, not the most cinematic of locations, becomes a symbolic, tension-ridden environment where loyalties are tested and scores settled. Lenser Choi Young-hwan captures the seamy flavor of foreign locales and interiors that convey the desired ambience; Choi Se-yeon’s costumes flatter the distaff cast while remaining in synch with the pic’s shifting color schemes.