In the sixties they were known as a gang of hardened London criminals, specialising in stealing diamonds. Times have changed though: Michael Caine is lonely widower, Jim Broadbent works in a chipper, Tom Courtenay flogs fireworks, Ray Winstone can’t get a loan, and Paul Whitehouse is on disability. When Caine is approached by introverted electrician Charlie Cox with an idea to lift millions of flawless diamonds locked in the vault of a London jewellers, the gang can’t resist a score that will set them up for the rest of their lives…
Based on a true story it’s easy to see why director James Marsh was attracted to the project. The man behind the nerve-wrecking Troubles thriller 'Shadow Dancer', and the tense documentary 'Man On Wire', which he framed as a heist movie, probably felt he could easily adapt those talents to a tale of old geezers attempting one last score. With 'The Road' scribe Joe Penhall, adapting an article by Mark Seal, on screenplay duties, and stalwarts like Caine, Broadbent, Courtenay and Michael Gambon on the team, it couldn’t fail, right?
Wrong. King of Thieves is structurally unsound and tonally inconsistent. Marsh can’t decide if his film is to mimic the broad humour of an Ealing Comedy like 'The Lavender Hill Mob' and 'The Ladykillers' or throw himself headlong into serious heist stuff. He opts for both, sometimes even in the same scene, and as a result he hampers both the gags and the stakes.
The cast can’t convince either way. When we first see Michael Caine, he’s a soft ex-crook, worried about his wife’s (Francesca Annis) upcoming surgery. But then, all of a sudden, he’s this dangerous criminal whom the others fear: an issue with this film is that we’re constantly told but never shown. Courtenay is the dithery lookout who falls asleep when he’s supposed to be watching the street. Broadbent can’t quite sell his short temper while the normally edgy Winstone is rather neutered. Only Michael Gambon, as the gormless fishmonger and gang fence, seems to be on message. But he’s definitely in a comedy.
In a very disjointed set-up, there’s no rhythm to the exchanges, there are inexplicably awkward angles and amateurish zooms, and the relationships between some of the characters don’t make sense/aren’t explained. We are told on numerous occasions that these characters are dangerous men but there’s no sense of this, bar the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flashbacks to their heyday. The heist itself lacks tension and the aftermath, where the gang turn on each other, doesn’t have the oomph it needs.
A better script than it is a film.