There is no honour among thieves in Choi Dong-hoon’s comedy-action-caper The Thieves
“What are we robbing?”
“Insane! Absolutely insane!”
A good crime caper movie is a bit like a good crime caper in a way. It takes a lot of planning, plenty of capable people, and precise execution. Fail any of those and the whole project can easily be a wash. Most of all, you have to be able to pull off what a lot of other people have done before, without making the same mistakes. It’s a tricky move, and audiences are pretty unforgiving to this sort of film if the plot is too similar to what’s come before. The Thieves balances on the edge of originality and cliché, but it thankfully comes out on top.
The movie opens with the titular thieves in the middle of a heist to steal a precious artefact from an art collector. We’re introduced to Popeye (Lee Jung-jae), the leader of the band, and his gang Yenicall (Jun Ji-hyun), Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun) and Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook), who are looking for another major score. Popeye gets a call from an old friend called Macau Park (Kim Yoon-seok), who plans on robbing a major casino in Macau. Popeye decides to call in Pepsi (Kim Hye-soo), an expert safecracker, who has only just got out of jail. Pepsi has it in for Macau Park after an incident during a heist that got Pepsi imprisoned.
To help move things along in Macau, Park also calls in help from Hong Kong crooks Chen (Simon Yam), Andrew (Oh Dal-su) and Johnny (Derek Tsang), as well as Julie (Angelica Lee), who is secretly an undercover cop. The two factions don’t seem to get along very well and it isn’t long before the immaculately-planned heist begins to go to pot.
That’s the basic premise of the film, without going into too much detail. You might have gleamed from the amount of names there that one of the biggest selling points of this film was its star-studded lineup which featured not only big names from Korea, but also Hong Kong. Having this many personalities in one movie might seem like a risky move, and it is, but having this much star power actually works. Much like a celebrity doing their best to get a lot of on-camera time, each thief is doing their darndest to make this job all about themselves. It’s a dynamic that really does the film a favour.
The Thieves could easily have become a lazy Ocean’s Eleven knock-off, but thankfully Choi Dong-hoon quickly shies away from any comparisons and once you ignore the casino setting and the general déjà-vu, the film very much comes into its own. In fact, this film has so much going on it could very well have been two (much slower and potentially less good) separate films. Much like how The Dark Knight could very well have ended on the Joker’s capturing, The Thieves could have ended after the Macau scenes. Instead, it decides to go for broke and gives us a second heist.
And this works largely in its favour. With the exception that it does mean the running time drags on a bit, the second act of the film narrows the cast somewhat and gives us better insight into where they’re coming from, who they are and their motivations. Of course, it’s a Korean film so it’s the Korean characters who get the majority of this development. And this is fair enough; there’s only so much screen time you can allocate to the characters and with a cast this big (and this star-studded), it makes sense to keep the final moments tighter. This serves to keep the physical and emotional stakes high.
The cinematography here is definitely worth pointing out, with huge sweeping shots of Seoul, Hong Kong and Macau punctuating the action. There are several moments where people go flying out of windows (usually attached by cables, thankfully), and these offer some of the most exilerating moments of the movie. I don’t know how much of this was done with stunt people hanging out of real windows, and how much on a green screen – though sometimes it is a bit obvious – but regardless of how these moments were done, they’re definitely some of the more memorable scenes.
As it stands, I’d say that it’s a pretty recommendable film if you’re looking for some mostly light-hearted capers and a lot of cool moments. Sure it could have benefitted from some tighter editing but as it is it’s a lot of fun to watch and the characters are all pretty likeable, so it makes sitting through the entire thing enjoyable, if only to know what happens at the end.
Verdict: A tad overlong but otherwise a whole heap of fun, The Thieves has blockbuster written all over it, but in a good way.
The Asian Cinema Critic Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Languages: As many as they could cram in
Backstabbings: What do you think?
Abseiling: So many buildings to climb down, so little time
The Thieves (2012)
Also known as: 도둑들; (Dodukdeul)
Korean, Cantonese, Japanese, English, probably more
Director: Choi Dong-hoon
Writers: Choi Dong-hoon, Lee Ki-cheol
Kim Yoon-seok – Macau Park
Lee Jung-jae – Popeye
Kim Hye-soo – Pepsi
Jun Ji-hyun – Yenicall
Kim Soo-hyun – Zampano
Kim Hae-sook – Chewing Gum
Oh Dal-su – Andrew
Simon Yam – Chen
Angelica Lee – Julie
Derek Tsang – Johnny
Joo Jin-mo – detective
Ki Gook-seo – Wei Hong
Yeh Soo-jung – Tiffany
Chae Gook-hee – informant
Choi Deok-moon – casino manager
Jang Joon-nyung – detective
Choi Jin-ho – One Eye
Son Byung-wook – Young-sik
Na Kwang-hoon – chief of criminal investigation
Shin Ha-kyun – art gallery owner (cameo)