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ten thieves turning on each other - somewhere, George Clooney and Brad Pitt aren't understanding any of this
on August 24, 2014
The Thieves is a heist film that broke the Korean box office in 2012. But I think that had more to do with the all-star casting than with the film itself being a masterpiece in the genre. Don't you twist it now, The Thieves provides awesome thrills and you get into the sprawling cast. Is it original? Hells to the no. The Thieves adheres to the standard heist flick progression of recruitment, planning, execution, and fallout. We expect for there to be twists and backstabbings and hidden alliances and dalliances. These are the essentials in heist cinema. What director Choi Dong-hoon does so right is he executes all these plot beats with superb precision and clarity, with good humor, and a smidge of sleight-of-hand. These heist movies, always trying to trick the audience.
Two thieving crews - one Korean, the other Chinese - to steal a precious diamond. It's the Tear of the Sun, a 318-carat diamond worth $30 million - in the black market, it's worth maybe $20 million. It's stored in an impenetrable vault in a heavily guarded casino in Macau. The two gangs are brought together by secretive mastermind Macau Park (played with infinite cool by Kim Yoon-seok) whose ties with the Korean bunch run particularly deep and festering.But maybe we should do a roll call? The Korean crew:
- Popie (Lee Jung-jae) - he heads up the Korean contingent; a flashy dude
- Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo) - the elegant safecracker who just served her prison sentence
- Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook) - the middle-aged con artist who donates her ill-gotten gains to her daughter
- Yenicall (sexy Jeon Ji-hyun) - the wire specialist who adroitly (and cheerfully) scales walls
- Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun) - the novice and Yenicall's smitten rope man
And the Chinese crew:
- Chen (Simon Yam) - the veteran thief
- Jonny (Derek Tsang) and Korean-Chinese Andrew (Oh Dal-soo) - Chen's two henchmen
- Julie (Angelica Lee) - daughter of a professional safecracker
Big ups to Choi Dong-hoon's tight, self-assured direction. But he's abetted by a charismatic star-studded ensemble made up of a celebrated Korean cast and Hong Kong (and Malaysian Chinese) luminaries. It's these actors who drove The Thieves to become the second-most money maker in the history of Korean cinema (sorry, The Host is still champ). I love the various group dynamics that come together and fall apart. There's a lot of moving pieces for the director to keep track of, and, sure 'nuff, several characters get short shrift. But you could tell even they were having fun in this all-star mixer.
If there were a "face" to the movie, it's Kim Hye-soo's desolate Pepsee. She's the most honest person in this story, just out of stir and participating in this caper not for the loot but to straighten out her mopey heart. The acting is good all around, but the women are conspicuously good. Jeon Ji-hyun, whom I crushed on in My Sassy Girl, is easy on the eyes, but what makes her remarkable is the casual sass she imbues into her character. Even when Yenicall is backed into a corner, it's evident she's still having the time of her life. I love that quality about her.
And while I wince at the name of Kim Hae-sook's con artist (Chewing Gum, for real?), the actress manages to lend a three-dimensional weight to her role. This is surprising because "Chewing Gum" is so obviously predominantly a comic foil.
I enjoyed the civil on the surface, seething underneath rivalry between Popie and Macao Park, ex-partners who four years ago bungled a caper. Popie is one of them cats who thinks they're more clever than they really are. Popie is a straight-up heel, yo, but Lee Jung-jae is so good and has such good comic timing you'd be hard pressed not to like him. He's got the more showy part, though. Kim Yoon-seok as the mysterious "Macau Park" has to play it closer to the vest. You don't really know what he's about until the action-packed third act when we find out that stealing the Tear of the Sun was only step one of his master plan.
No, son, The Thieves as a heist classic isn't quite up there with, say, John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle or Jules Dassin's Rififi or Michael Mann's Heat or Nolan's Inception (yes, Inception is a heist movie). As a more commercial entertainer it doesn't hit the spot as resoundingly did McTiernan's Thomas Crown Affair or Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven or Marky Mark's The Italian Job. But I bow down to your contention that I come from the perspective of a western audience and so isn't as invested with the cast and culture. I point out that the third act seems a departure from the tone of the previous two acts. The first two acts focus on the elements of the heist and how that caper plays out. It's neat that, besides the expected obstacles, the thieves are also aware of another potential threat in the shape of a frightful bogeyman named Wei Hong. No one knows what Wei Hong looks like or even his nationality. One identifier is the butterfly tattoo on his hand. Think all that is relevant? Maybe. The third act is the messy aftermath as, post-heist, various players meet their fates. We watch as the film shifts to a Macau Park-centric narrative. It's almost like another film as Macau switches to frenzied action hero mode. It's exciting times in an extended adrenalin overdose sequence as the mastermind catapults off buildings on a wire and dodges bullets and takes on heavily armed thugs. Huh. Maybe he's not so good at masterminding after all. Not if a body has to resort to jumping off buildings to dodge bullets. Watch this movie anyway.
The DVD's bonus stuff (with English sub-titles):
- Making Of featurette (00:05:50 minutes)
- Meet the Thieves (00:04:32 minutes)
- The Thieves trailer