Nobody has as much energy as they used to in “King of Thieves,” which is partly the point. James Marsh’s true-crime heist movie is built around two remarkably high figures: first, the £14 million value of the loot, making the burglary in question the largest in British legal history, and more crucially, the average age of the culprits, almost all of whom were veteran criminals well into retirement.
The Hatton Garden jewelry heist made international headlines in 2015, but could have been a story dreamed up in Ealing Studios’ midcentury prime: A Vanity Fair article on which this film is based was even titled “The Over-the-Hill Mob.” Small wonder, then, that British film producers have been swift to jump on it. Yet this proficiently polished thriller (the second big-screen treatment of the story in two years) seems to feel a creak in its own joints: Torn between jaunty genre hijinks and a bleaker streak of realism, it’s a strangely stiff, lethargic account of a cracking tale.
Though it’s still waiting U.S. distribution, “King of Thieves” has already opened in Blighty to solid returns — opening against the buzzier “Crazy Rich Asians,” and outdoing its screen average, proving once more the power of the “gray pound” at the British box office. Senior-skewing hits like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” tend to be more unisex in focus, but this strictly old boys’ affair, led by a weary Michael Caine in native Cockney form, evidently has enough marquee appeal to cross quadrants. It certainly dwarfs the profile of last year’s less studio-slick “The Hatton Garden Job,” even if that film arguably had a little more B-movie spring in its step.
Marsh’s film begins perkily enough, with a slip-sliding credit sequence and vintage soul soundtrack combining to set a japey, swinging retro mood, deftly channeling some of the ensemble’s cinematic salad days into the bargain. Lest viewers think they’re in for a merry “Ocean’s Elderly” romp, however, the mood swiftly takes a melancholy turn, as gone-straight career criminal Brian Reader (Michael Caine) sinks into ennui following the death of his wife Lynne (Francesca Annis, whose early-exit cameo is the lone female speaking role of any consequence in this well-aged sausage-fest).
Joe Penhall’s screenplay lingers on the accumulating losses and indignities of old age, as Caine and his former underworld peers — including short-fuse hardman Terry Perkins (Jim Broadbent), inept ditherer Kenny Collins (Courtenay) and Ray Winstone-like thug Danny Jones (Ray Winstone) — variously gripe about loneliness, tiredness, replacement hips and diabetes treatment. When shy young alarm specialist Basil (Charlie Cox) comes to Reader with a well-honed plan for raiding a bling-rich vault in London’s jewelry quarter, the chief argument for doing it seems to be that it’ll at least give them something else to talk about.
The planning and execution of the heist itself proceeds in fairly limber fashion, egged on by Benjamin Wallfisch’s dandy electro-jazz score. But it’s barely half the story in “King of Thieves,” which dwells in more leisurely fashion on the ugly, petty fallout of the job, as honor amongst thieves falls predictably by the wayside when faced with millions to divvy up.
Yet as the film slackens its pace and shifts awkwardly from caper mode to sober moral deliberations, its one-note characters can’t quite carry it. Penhall, far from the sleek form of his TV series “Mindhunter,” has written them less as distinct personalities than as empty vessels for the actors’ well-worn screen personae — save for Broadbent, cast intriguingly if not quite convincingly against type as a sadistic bully. Others, like Michael Gambon’s senile, incontinent fence, serve merely as the butt of recurring old-people jokes. Perhaps because he’s in the clear on that front — though his quiet sensitivity earns him tedious homophobic banter from the geezers — Cox’s low-flying mastermind comes off most engagingly here.
This is unchallenging territory for Marsh, the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire” docmaker who has recently segued into tony prestige biopics like “The Theory of Everything” and “The Mercy.” Settling with d.p. Danny Cohen on a rainy-day aesthetic throughout, he steers it with two-hands-on-the-wheel steadiness, when a little more reckless stylistic lane-weaving might have assisted, or at least matched, the script’s lurches in tone.
Accepting that Caine and his crew are the chief audience attraction here, the film is perhaps too deferential to them in its writing and assembly, counting on their mere presence to sell a story that really ought to be selling itself. Towards the end, in one of his few playful directorial flourishes, Marsh inserts cutaways to footage from key films of the stars’ youth — “The Italian Job” for Caine, “Billy Liar” for Courtenay, and so on — in place of flashbacks; in such moments, “King of Thieves” seems as much a reflection on its beloved stars’ mortality as that of its crooked, ache-riddled characters.