Hatton Garden heist flick King of Thieves is more than just laddish larks

Starring Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone and Paul Whitehouse, this film mixes steely menace and jolly japes.

 

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The six perpetrators of the Hatton Garden heist (combined age: around 440) took home a haul in the region of £200m in cash and jewellery when they broke into safe-deposit boxes in 2015. They weren’t the only ones to hit paydirt: the film and television industry has done nicely out of the whole affair, squeezing one mini-series and three movies from it. To say the third one, King of Thieves, is the best would be to damn it with the faintest of praise. Tooting brass on the soundtrack promises laddish larks and jolly japes but the film delivers these at a price. We can have the joshing banter, the gags about this over-the-hill Lavender Hill Mob, but they come mixed up with the sniping and snarling, the carnivorous nastiness. Reminiscing about the good old days, one gang member says: “We kicked ‘em in the cobblers, doused ‘em in petrol, but we never hurt them.” Bless.

Sympathy for the old devils isn’t hard to find at first. Kenny (Tom Courtenay) and Terry (Jim Broadbent) are commiserating together over being analogue crooks in a digital age. Danny (Ray Winstone) can’t get a bank loan, Carl (Paul Whitehouse) is consigned to his allotment and Brian (Michael Caine) is mourning the death of his wife (Francesca Annis). The audience, in turn, can mourn the passing of the only female character with a speaking part.

It is Brian who decides to recruit his old muckers to boost the Hatton Garden vault over one long Easter weekend. The script, by the playwright Joe Penhall, savours the details of age: Brian with his pills and ointment, Kenny with his corned-beef sarnies and his new hip. Chit-chat turns to diabetes (“You type 2?”). But it is when the spoils are being divided that the writing and playing is at its tightest. Kenny brings on board a shambolic fence (Michael Gambon), a Vladimir to his Estragon, enraging Brian. The C-word (no, it isn’t “codger”) flies back and forth alarmingly. Winstone rediscovers some of his Nil By Mouth rage, Caine goes into cold-eyed Get Carter mode and Broadbent, breaking a chair to put the frighteners up his cohorts, reveals a steely, unexpected menace. The director James Marsh made his name in documentary (Man On Wire, Project Nim) and it is with the use of archive footage of his veteran cast that he strikes the picture’s most resonant and melancholic note.

Chloé Zhao’s remarkable film The Rider offers a different interpretation of truth, one more consistent with the Iranian school: she casts non-actors to play versions of themselves so that they are reinhabiting experiences they have gone through for real.

Brady Jandreau is a young rodeo rider who suffered a severe head injury after being thrown from a horse. Zhao casts him as Brady Blackburn, a young rodeo rider who suffers… well, you get the idea. From one side, Brady is beautiful enough to give the Lakota sunsets a run for their money; from the other, he is a patchwork of staples, scabs, shaved scalp and bandages, one hand clenching into a claw. He’s broken in other ways, too, trying to reconcile himself to a life without bucking broncos. He knows what happens to riders who forsake the rodeo: they turn into farmers. For now, he’s stacking shelves, a cowboy with a price-gun, but the lure of the arena is hard to resist.

Jandreau is an ingenuous presence whose natural serenity is captured in an extended scene of horse-whispering that explores patiently his bond with animals. There’s an unspoken joy to this, and to his rapport with his charismatic sister Lilly, who has Asperger’s, and his buddy Lane, who was paralysed after an accident of his own and can now only grin and shake approvingly when they watch old rodeo videos together.

The Rider could easily have been pitying or patronising but it is suffused instead with warmth, understanding and insightful detail: the horse auction where one buyer has brought along a pet raccoon on a string, or the tattoo parlour stalked by a woman with a fly swat. In one of the sweetest scenes, Lilly is shown covering her brother’s body with gold stars while he sleeps. The film does something comparable to his life. 

King of Thieves (15)
dir: James Marsh

The Rider (15)
dir: Chloé Zhao

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism