A veteran cast of British greats are reduced to playing knockabout caricatures in King of Thieves, as the real life Hatton Garden heist is retold as an Ealing comedy
King of Thieves (15) **
Lucky (15) ***
The Rider (15) ****
The 2015 Hatton Garden diamond heist gets The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel treatment in King of Thieves, a typically naff and patronising slice of cheeky-chappy British cinema that sacrifices the story’s potential as a worthy star vehicle for the cream of Britain’s veteran acting crop in favour of the sort of dumbed-down populism that shows little interest in getting beyond the headlines. That in itself might be its own kind of meta-commentary on Britain’s spurious legacy as a once-great nation in the run up to Brexit; if so, it feels entirely accidental, a consequence of casting the likes of Michael Caine, Tom Courteney, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon and Ray Winstone and then giving these formerly angry young men little to do except trade stories about the necrotic state of their own ailing bodies.
Caine is particularly ill-served as Brian Reader, the gone-somewhat-legit master criminal of the title who, in the wake of his wife’s death, pulls together a seemingly unlikely crew of ageing thieves to perpetrate a daring robbery in London’s diamond district. Drifting into the background of the actual robbery, Caine becomes more of a passive observer, watching from the sidelines as Broadbent and Winstone’s characters reveal their nastier sides, while Courteney plays up his bumbling nature to better aid his own chances of walking away with a bigger cut (Gambon, by contrast, appears purely as comic relief, always on hand to empty his bladder when the moment doesn’t require it).
The film devotes much of its second half to exploring the post-heist mistrust that apparently did for this neo-Lavender Hill Mob, but director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) is too reluctant to break the popular tabloid narrative of their actions as an Ealing-style caper to seriously explore their hinted at violent pasts. It’s all bait and no switch, which might have worked had Marsh executed it with the kind of visual panache Steven Soderbergh brings to his more light-hearted heist movies (Ocean’s Eleven, say, or Logan Lucky). But the film lacks any consistent style, which only magnifies the tonal inconsistencies to the point where they become the sort of flaw that devalues the whole enterprise.
It’s actually another Soderbergh film, The Limey, starring Terrence Stamp, that really exposes what a missed opportunity King of Thieves is. Just as that film re-appropriated clips from Stamp’s performance in Poor Cow as real-time flashbacks, so King of Thieves uses brief clips of Caine and co from the likes of The Italian Job, Billy Liar and Scum to show its principal players in the flush of youth. Unfortunately, instead of reckoning with their respective legacies in any meaningful way (as The Limey did with Stamp’s), these inserts function as a sort of nostalgic cash-grab, failing entirely to interrogate the way this generation’s ongoing determination to relive the glories of a misremembered past have played a significant part in robbing subsequent generations of their own futures.
Sticking with old-timers, Harry Dean Stanton’s final film, Lucky, provides the late character actor with a wonderfully low-key send-off. Cast as the eponymous resident of a small town where everyone knows everyone, he’s the perfect embodiment of a wizened straight-shooter whose acceptance of the fact that “he’s old and getting older” is in perfect accordance with the defiant way he’s lived his life. Co-starring David Lynch (one of Stanton’s many directors over the years) as a barfly mourning the escape of his pet tortoise, the film may feel a little stagey in its collection of wonderful weirdoes and meaningful monologues, but its meditation on the ageing process goes from the ridiculous to the sublime with blissed out ease.
Like Debra Granik’s recent Leave No Trace and the collected work of Kelly Reichardt, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is an example of regional American cinema at its finest. Revolving around a rodeo rider coming to terms with a potentially life-altering head injury, the film is stylistically sparse, devoid of contrivance and so subtly observed it plays like an anti-drama – until, that is, the final moments reveal a filmmaker working with the precision of a poet and the ability to unleash the sort of devastating emotional blow that hits you with the force of a wrecking ball. With a cast of non-professionals playing narrowly fictionalised versions of themselves, Zhao’s trump card is the beautifully layered performance she gets from her lead, Brady Jandreau. Having himself suffered a serious head trauma just four months before filming began, he inscribes his character, Brady Blackburn, with a rawness that’s hard to fake. As the film opens, Brady, a modern-day cowboy living a hard-scrabble life in the Dakota prairies with his learning disabled sister and his combative father (respectively played by Jandreau’s real-life sister and father), has just checked himself out of hospital following a rodeo accident that’s left him with the sort of neurological damage that’s going to bring his dreams to a premature end.
What follows is a quiet exploration of the difficult-to-articulate grieving process he experiences as he’s forced to adapt to an existence that can’t help but seem suddenly devoid of purpose. Zhao, working in collaboration with God’s Own Country cinematographer Joshua James Richards, never wallows in misery; instead she takes her cues from the community in which she’s imbedded herself, finding moments of transcendence wholly appropriate for a group of thrill seekers who live for those eight seconds in the saddle. ■