An elaborate theft involving high flying acrobatics, gadgetry and a con job opens writer/director Choi Dong-hoon‘s latest action/comedy, The Thieves, and it sets a perfect tone for the next hour. Close calls and comedic scrapes trade time with insult-filled bickering amidst the group of thieves always looking out for their next score, but when the tight-knit Korean gang joins forces with a Chinese team for an enormous theft the banter takes on a far more dangerous edge.
Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok) is the connective tissue bringing the two groups together with the goal of liberating a $30 million diamond called the Tear of the Sun away from its current owner. Each side, and each individual thief, brings a necessary element to the job, but they also bring an unavoidable uncertainty as to their loyalties. The predicament is reminiscent of the tale of the frog and the scorpion trying to cross a river… except in the world of thieves everyone is a scorpion.
Park has history with players on both sides, but his most obvious and dangerous connections are with his fellow Koreans. Pepsee (Kim Hye-su) is his ex-lover who’s just been paroled from jail after serving time for a crime committed when they were together. Popie (Lee Jung-jae) has taken his leader spot in the group as well as in Pepsee’s bed. Enicall (Jeon Ji-hyeon) is the young, beautiful, self-interested wire-walker, and Chewingum (Kim Hae-suk) is the older career criminal hoping to finally get out of the business with her heart and retirement fund intact. Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun) and Andrew (Oh Dal-su) round out the gang as the newest and most nervous members respectively. The Hong Kong trio are led by Chen (Simon Yam), another career criminal, who’s accustomed to using violence to get what he wants.
The various players arrive in Macao and put their elaborate plan into action, but it’s clear from the outset that trust is nonexistent between and even within the teams. Greed almost immediately splits them into factions, some pairing up while others go the solitary route, and secrets from the past come bubbling to light.
The Thieves is comparable to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean‘s trilogy in both its narrative and its action/comedy appeal, but it also bears similarity in its gathering of above the line onscreen talent. Several of the actors here are big names in South Korea and China/Hong Kong, and they add a noticeable heft to the production in all the right ways. That said, it’s not quite up to pure pop entertainment levels of Ocean’s 11, and instead veers towards that film’s sequel.
It’s too big at times, and Choi doesn’t quite have a firm grip on all the players. The film tries to afford time to everyone, and the pacing suffers for it. At over two hours it feels too long and may have viewers wanting to skip past smaller plot threads to return to the main double and triple crosses happening between thieves as loyalties and the diamond trade hands again and again. Credit goes to Choi and co-writer Lee Gi-cheol though for juggling the various threads well and clear enough that there’s never any confusion as to who has what or who’s double-crossing who.
That sharp script goes a long way towards forgiving the film’s length especially when it includes some terrific action and suspense beats. Once scene in particular deserving of wide praise is a chase/fight that extends to a building’s exterior by way of scaffolding, air conditioning units and window sills along a highrise’s face. It’s an energetic and truly exciting set piece that should draw comparisons to stunts seen in US blockbusters.
Choi’s fourth film continues his string of casual, fun entertainment with the slightest of edges, and as with Tazza: The High Rollers and Woochi part of his secret is to start with a fun, charismatic cast. He’s stocked the movie with talented, fun to watch actors, and he’s given them an entertaining world of deception and stylish action to play in together.
The Upside: Action sequence on side of building is spectacular and exciting; first half is funny and loose; strong performances
The Downside: Overly long by 20 minutes or so; too many character subplots to monitor
On the Side: The Thieves is the highest grossing film in South Korea having recently beaten out Bong Joon-ho’s The Host with a box-office haul equivalent to $86 million.
The Thieves is now playing in limited release.