‘King of Thieves’ Film Review: Michael Caine Leads a Charming Crew of Retired Gangsters

Caine and a squad of venerable British acting legends take on one last job in this lark of a heist saga

Last Updated: January 25, 2019 @ 12:30 PM

James Marsh’s heist-caper “King of Thieves” reunites beloved British actors for a story that’s familiar yet still surprising. In a rat pack that includes Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay and Ray Winstone, these mild-mannered gents play retired criminals who unite for one last tantalizing score: the chance to steal over £200 million in jewels and money.

Brian (Caine) is the reluctant leader of this grizzly pack, breaking his promise to his late wife to leave his notorious days behind him. But he knows a score too good to pass up, and when timid, but criminally minded whippersnapper Basil (Charlie Cox, Netflix’s “Daredevil”) shows him a way into a high-security vault holding millions worth of goods, Brian rallies his troops for one last show. Basil ingratiates his way into their company as an expert in wiring and as the person who knows everything there is to know about their target.

Their crew is a motley one. Brian may be the brains of the organization, but he’s got a match-in-the-making with his old associate, Terry (Jim Broadbent). Whatever bad blood boiled up in their decades of crime together simmers underneath their conversations, sometimes imperceptibly, but later, it’s unmistakable. The other boys in the band are much funnier spirits, like daredevil Danny (Ray Winstone), fussy John Kenny (Tom Courtenay) and the unkempt Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon), who’s most recognizable by his disheveled hair and constant need for a bathroom.

They are not the crooks they were in their youths. The movie uses flashback sequences from their more violent days in the business. In some shots, we see the worn-color film strips of a group of men in ’70s leisure suits beating up another man. Another flashback goes back to a time where black-and-white film was the standard, showing the men in their younger, more formidable forms. In a nice homage to the careers of those in the cast, “King of Thieves” uses footage of Caine in “The Italian Job,” Courtenay in “Billy Liar,” and Winstone in “Scum” as stand-ins for their characters’ flashback sequences. It’s a fitting tribute to the old guard and their accomplishments.

Caine’s character is the movie’s emotional core: At the beginning of the movie, Brian is seen on a date with his wife, who begs him to stay away from any more wrongdoing. She dies not long after, and Brian continues to battle with guilt for putting on the heist and carrying it out. Caine’s performance is mournful in the most reserved way; he demonstrates sadness not by crying but by staring wistfully outside his window at the garden his wife once enjoyed. Yet, around his ne’er do well comrades, he’s tough. He has to be. He’s even brusque with the clueless Basil, an underestimation that will cost everyone in the long run.

The script (by Joe Penhall, “The Road,” (based on a magazine article by Mark Seal) runs in fits and starts, but the camerawork from Danny Cohen (“Brexit”) keeps the mood lively during any lulls. Cohen paints the setting as a slickly grey London after rain. His images’ crisp digital appearance contrasts with the old-fashioned flashback sequences that were either period or made to look that way.

Although most of the cast walks slowly and may take a little longer to rob a high-security vault than when they would have at their prime, “King of Thieves” uses clever editing to bounce around the various characters, whether one is playing lookout or another is breaking the tools he needs to crack the vault. That rhythmic editing (from Jinx Godfrey, “The Theory of Everything,” and Nick Moore, “Burnt”) appears again when the police are on the thieves’ trail, using surveillance video and technology to capture the thieves.

“King of Thieves” feels surprisingly, if somewhat uncharacteristically, pleasant for a crime movie. It’s fun to watch the characters’ egos clash and to feel the suspense build over the mounting evidence against the group. But the thrills are gentle in comparison to the 1960s British heist films they evoke. “King of Thieves” lacks that wild streak of rebellious energy evident in the movies from that era. Although the score is high, the stakes seem low; the group mostly just wants to get back into business for old times’ sake.

Despite the film’s few imperfections, it’s still enjoyable to watch the cast of older actors refuse to age out of a young man’s genre.