Caper flicks have been done before. For the record, the French have had a few solid outings. I’ve yet to see anything significant from the Russians. The Brits can pull them off with surprising aplomb, as can many other production houses throughout the United Kingdom. I would have to say, though, that the United States has put out the lion’s share of the truly memorable ones. I couldn’t say why that is exactly; maybe it’s that I haven’t seen enough foreign imports, or maybe it’s just that U.S. production companies have a singular knack for taping into that exceptional mix of action and comedic charm needed to pull it off so winningly.
If THE THIEVES is any indication, then South Korea may be set to give the Americans a good run for their money.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Popeye (played by Jung-Jae Lee) and his crew of thieving misfits (among them Hae-suk Kim as Chewingum; and the lovely Gianna Jun as Yenicall) are “hot” … and not in a good way. Their last job drew the attention of the local police. Now needing to lie low, they agree to take a job with an old friend of Popeye’s – the mysterious Macao Park (Yun-seok Kim) – to steal the ‘Tear of the Sun’ diamond, a gem valued at a cool $20 million. The hitch? The diamond is kept in a private safe inside the busiest casino in Macau. However, the complexity of the job requires that they team up with another squad of professional burglars, this one headed by Chen (the reliable Simon Yam). Needless to say, things do go as planned, and, before all is said and done, they’ll be running for their lives from the police, one another, and the ruthless ganglord Wei Hong (Ki Guk-Seo)!
I could go on and on with great praise for THE THIEVES, but what’s the use? It’s the kind of picture that you’re either going to see or you’re not (many will pass on it solely because it’s a foreign release, and they don’t know what a delight they’re missing). So let me say this: it’s a heist picture – a very clever one scripted by Dong-Hoon Choi (as the director) and Lee Gi-Cheol – all built around an ensemble of ten of the most gifted Eastern actors working in cinema today. The U.S. already did this kind of thing (recently) with the OCEAN’S ELEVEN franchise – which had a solid first outing – so THIEVES is, bit by bit, much of the same, but, to my tastes, it’s far more witty and inventive due to the fact that there are several overlapping stories at work here. There are crosses and double-crosses, all with a back story involving three of the main characters, and it’s an utter joy seeing how it comes together in the grand finish. Suffice it to say, it probably won’t be the way audiences predicted; and there’s just enough opening left in the conclusion to leave room for a follow-up should all of the players be interested.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that THIEVES presently holds the title of the single highest grossing film in Korean history, an honor not all that surprising to this reviewer; it’s precisely the kind of crowd-pleasing film audiences flock to again and again. Also, it won the award for Best Supporting Actress (Hae-suk Kim) and was nominated for Best Director (Dong-Hoon Choi) at the 2012 Grand Bell Awards; it won the Audience Award for the Best Narrative Feature at the 2012 Hawaii International Film Festival; and it was nominated for Best Cinematographer, Best Editor, and two Best Supporting Actresses (Gianna Jun AND Hae-suk Kim) at the 2013 Asian Film Awards. So, yes, it’s that entertaining!
THE THIEVES is produced by CJ Venture Investment, KM Culture Co., Michigan Venture Capital, and Showbox/Mediaplex. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through the ever-reliable Well Go USA. As for the technical specifications, I watched this on Blu-ray, and it’s perfect: the sound is crisp and well-balanced (sometimes an issue with foreign imports), and the images – colors and visuals – are stunning. Plus, there’s some magnificently nifty camerawork throughout; no expense was spared in getting this ensemble caper to look good on the silver screen. For the record, this is a Korean language film with English-subtitles (no dubbing, though there are a few scenes spoken in English). As for the special features, please allow me to jump up on my soapbox and complain (once more) than you just couldn’t put enough tidbits on here to make me happy; sadly, there are only two – a all-too-brief ‘making of’ short and an even shorter ‘Meet the Thieves’ infomercial – along with the theatrical trailer. Needed more – I know it’s difficult – but it needed more.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. Let me say this: there are a few comedic bits that, apparently, don’t translate all that well in THE THIEVES. After all, comedy is so very culturally driven, and, in the translation, some of the comic visuals and the dialogue don’t work as well as it should for Western audiences (try telling a joke and then butchering the punchline, and you’ll get what I mean). Otherwise, THIEVES is an unmitigated home run, the kind of which will probably get an Americanized remake in about five or ten years that’ll be far less charming than the original. Rent it now. See it now. You’ll be glad you did.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with an advance DVD screener of THE THIEVES for the expressed purposes of completing this review … and I’m forever indebted to them for making me aware that such a fun piece of unrelenting action came this way from distant shores.
Heist or crime caper films are a dime-a-dozen. While most are mediocre using formula and familiar devices, there are a select few that actually made such films work. Heist films need 1) interesting characters 2) a near-impregnable place to rob 3) a good and believable scheme with a credible motivation 4) an impressive plan and an original execution of the actual heist. And 5) perhaps an unpredictable twist. … more