There's a charming little subset of heist films about elderly men pulling off bank jobs, often out of boredom, and the authorities struggling to reconcile these crafty old geezers with the much younger hoodlums they might have expected. Just last year, Robert Redford evoked his Sundance Kid days by playing a genteel stickup artist in The Old Man & the Gun. But the tradition goes back as far as the 1951 Ealing Studios classic The Lavender Hill Mob, about a whimsical gold-smuggling scheme, and the 1979 George Burns-Art Carney-Lee Strasberg team-up Going in Style, about glum retirees and widowers looking to improve their diminished lifestyle. (The latter was remade to lesser effect in 2017 with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin in the lead roles.)
Though these films will occasionally have a sliver of melancholy, they're more inclined to look at their thieves as cute — to be admired for their ingenuity and feistiness rather than to be understood as criminals. In that sense, King of Thieves, inspired by the real-life 2015 burglary of the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit company in London, is unique. The four elderly men responsible for the burglary — which netted up to 200 million British pounds in cash, jewels and other valuables — are not your friendly shuffleboarders next door but experienced criminals who have no respect for the law, little respect for each other and no apparent feeling for the term "honor among thieves."
Director James Marsh would seem to be the right man for the job, having turned the team efforts of crossing the twin towers via tightrope and caring for a domesticated chimpanzee into the superb documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, respectively. And he has cast Caine and other aging British legends like Jim Broadbent and Tom Courtenay as the burglars, shrewdly recalling their screen pasts as working-class blokes with a harder edge than some of their more recent roles suggest. Yet King of Thieves struggles to pin down the right tone: At times, it wants to be comic caper along the lines of The Lavender Hill Mob, but it can be only so adorable. Reality proves to be a buzzkill.
Boredom is still a key motivator here, however. After his wife dies, 77-year-old Brian Reader (Caine) tries to honor her wish to not get into any more trouble, but loneliness and inactivity don't suit him, so he starts looking around for a project. A tip about the fortune sitting in safe deposit boxes in Hatton Garden leads him to assemble a unit of hardened, advanced cons (Broadbent, Courtenay and Ray Winstone), plus a young expert (Charlie Cox) in security systems, to pull off the biggest heist in England's history. They accomplish the job like the seasoned professionals they are, but the process of divvying the loot and slipping a countrywide manhunt proves to be a considerably messier proposition.
With a cast this rich in experience and history and a fact-based heist of such enormous scale, King of Thieves sounds like a shake-and-bake classic in the making, which makes its pedestrian execution all the more puzzling to behold. Caine draws heavily on the cockney grit of his early career, and Marsh wisely avoids the temptation to color him or his co-stars as more likable than they are — these are shameless crooks who are stuffing their pockets and socks with jewels before they even leave the scene of the crime. But great heist films are primarily feats of style, as elegantly sequenced and stylized as the jobs themselves, and that's where Marsh falls short.
Marsh's account of that twin towers walk in Man on Wire effectively fused talking-heads storytelling with obliquely staged re-enactments, but the Hatton Garden job requires a finesse he can't quite muster. King of Thieves feels like the dress rehearsal before opening night, a dry walk-through of events that will surely be thrilling on the day of the show. The ticktock of the burglary and its aftermath is cleanly sequenced, but there's no particular emphasis on one aspect of the story or another, no sense of what Marsh is trying to express about the grizzled camaraderie of his cast or about the criminal mind. It takes a twisted kind of passion to forgo retirement for a score this monumental, but the film isn't equal to the task.