At 85, Michael Caine is a king of cinematic thieves, and not just for stealing scenes. The venerable actor has found a flinty charm in tough blokes since the 1960s, memorably as the exasperated schemer in The Italian Job. (“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”)
King of Thieves casts Caine as the mastermind of one of Britain’s largest and strangest heists: the real 2015 robbery of London’s diamond district. But the film’s shifts in tone, unfocused script, and lagging pace, particularly in the second half, make for disappointing plunder.
Caine (the Now You See Me franchise, Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films) plays Brian Reader, who at 76 organized his ex-con pals to ransack the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company while closed for Easter. Investigators at the time were so flummoxed they suggested hard-bodied pros had to have snagged the cash and jewels worth at least an estimated $18 million. Learning that all the bandits, save one, were retirees with bad knees, diabetes, and other ills was a whole other surprise.
In the early moments, Brian promises his beloved but dying wife, Lynne (a brief Francesca Annis), that he’ll stay out of trouble. But after her death, he finds it tough to knock around their empty house alone. When Basil (Charlie Cox, TV’s Daredevil), a tech guy with a knack for alarms, shows up with a key to the safe-deposit company, Brian can’t resist.
King of Thieves seems nicked from the same vault as Going in Style (1979 and 2017), with a gang of old-timers plotting one more score. But it offers little motivation for Brian beyond having thieving blood and tempting frenemies. Danny (Ray Winstone, The Gunman), Terry (Jim Broadbent, Game of Thrones), and Kenny (Tom Courtenay, 45 Years) love to relive the bad old days, talking shop at Lynne’s funeral. Soon they’re rustling up another crony, Carl (Paul Whitehouse, The Death of Stalin), for help.
Director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) peppers the heist’s planning and aftermath with footage of Caine from 1969’s The Italian Job, along with flashes of his costars in their youth from films like Billy Liar and The Lavender Hill Mob. That’s one way to comment on these guys wanting one last score—or having trouble changing their ways.
But the script hits that note a bit too hard (such as when the jazz song “The Party’s Over” plays while we flip through Brian’s criminal record). It also veers unevenly from comedy to bitterness. (Joe Penhall, of TV’s Mindhunter and The Road, based the script on two articles about the heist. Vanity Fair writer Mark Seal is mentioned in the opening; The Guardian writer Duncan Campbell gets credit at the end.)
There’s humor in how the real thieves—who here barely stand one another—managed to pull this off in the first place. Their lookout fell asleep, one character needs an insulin shot in the butt during the break-in … When the unnamed female detectives (Claire Lichie, Doctors, and Ann Akin, Electric Dreams) start tracking them down, they don’t have to look hard.
King of Thieves comes to life whenever Caine and the others banter about the reassurance of a nice vault or how prison offers the chance for a doctor when you need one. But by the time the thieves and their fence, Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon, Kingsman: The Golden Circle), bicker over who had cold feet and who deserves a bigger share, viewers will miss the chemistry—and a reason to care whether any of these fellows gets away.