The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival took place from July 15 to July 31. For more information on what you missed, click here
Going in ignorant as I so often do, there was something pleasingly old school feeling about The Thieves, to the extent that when I found out it was released ten years ago, I wasn’t surprised; this twisty, stripped down yet blockbuster sized heist thriller felt fleet and grounded in a way that brought back to mind an older, more classically-minded approach to action filmmaking.
(You’re going to want to keep in mind that ‘grounded’ is a relative term, contextually speaking)
It’s entirely possible that this is just the inevitable misplaced adoration that comes with being an American genre lover who has perhaps OD’d on local CGI, but the sense of scale and the practical stuntwork, though already on the way out in 2012, feels even more bracing and delightful a decade later.
Turns out it’s the second highest grossing movie in Korean film history. And while that’s a bit surprising, honestly… it’s not that surprising.
As directed by Choi Dong-hoon, The Thieves offers up the sheer, unadulterated fun of a heist thriller, with a well-served ensemble, a cleverly plotted series of reveals and reversals, and the type of crackerjack action finale that feels like something of a lost art. It’s not necessarily the most original, but who asked for that? Sometimes all the bells and whistles just get in the way.
Sometimes, all you really need is a couple really tall buildings, an expensive looking shiny thing or two, and a bunch of really attractive, really greedy people standing around, dressed in all black.
A warmup gig introduces us to the first half of our quote-unquote heroes, a quartet of thieves angling to swipe a priceless artifact from a hapless curator (specially billed Shin Hak-yun, in a goofily amusing cameo), a daring series of maneuvers involving a manufactured visit from a potential future in-law, a cheap replica most likely purchased at the local Target (price tag not removed, naturally), a certain degree of urban rappelling, and of course, chewing gum.
(Also involved: a character named Chewing Gum, but never mind that now…)
Having established their bonafides thusly, we are then introduced to the other half, engaged in an equally well-executed, if significantly less clever, jewel store robbery. In the aftermath, leader type Chen (Simon MF-ing Yam) gets an offer to do a job in Macao, at which point the fun really begins.
What we’ve got here is a ten person team, and as that number might indicate, we’re very much in the area of the all-star cast…. pretty much everyone here has at least one bonafide classic to their name, whether they were coming in to 2012 on a hot streak, or would hit the big time in the years since. And for those that weren’t there yet, it’s easy to see how they got there; for all the plot pyrotechnics and dynamite action on display, it’s the characters and their various interactions that make the movie more than just a simple spectacle.
Much of the intrigue revolves around the characters of Popie (Lee Jung-jae), Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo), and Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok), a former split under decidedly dramatic circumstances, and reunited in circumstances no less rife with potential messiness. Popie adds a freshly out of prison Pepsee to the team, much to the consternation of Park. And both of them are holding a grudge on account of their belief that Park scammed them out of the profits from the heist that got Popsee sent up.
And, of course, this is all to say nothing of the other members of the team, who may or may not have their own agendas in mind.
It’s a powder keg just waiting to go off.
If only the money weren’t so damned good…
The Thieves makes the most of its 133 minute runtime, devoting it’s first act to getting to know our large cast, and meticulously outlining the details of the heist, step by step. For all the twists that are to come in the second half, the film is refreshingly upfront about exactly how it’s all supposed to work out, instead of using obfuscation to generate suspense, they do it the old fashioned way: showing how it’s supposed to go, telling us who wants what and how they’re going to mess it up for whom, and letting us stew as we wait for the chaos to kick in.
It’s exposition heavy, of course, but it all moves with a certain fleetness and narrative nimbleness, and no small amount of successful comedy. But as a motivation explicating flashback, and it’s very abrupt, very bloody resolution indicate, it’s not all fun and games; people are going to get hurt.
And so the film shifts into a more intense gear in its second half, tracing the aftermath of the heist going wrong, and narrowing our crew into a somewhat more manageable, somewhat more emotionally driven series of escapes and confrontations. Of this part I will say no more; the double crosses, triple crosses and general turnabouts aren’t necessarily the most surprising, as such (though there are at least a couple of turns that caught me off guard). But when they’re executed with such style and flair, it’s always best to just experience them in the moment.
(While every cast member proves their worth, I would like to call special attention to two cast members n particular: Kim Hae-sook as the aforementioned Chewing Gum, whose unexpected romantic subplot with Yam is both given the absolutely perfect amount of screentime and also something that I would watch an entire movie of all on its own; and Oh Dal-su as the ridiculously coiffed Andrew, a hilariously hapless goofball that threatens to murder a puppy and still manages to keep us on his side)
What can I say, really? I just plain had a good time with this. And as someone who’s attention span has gotten ever shorter over the years, the fact that the nearly two and a half hours simply flew by feels like cause for celebration. Even in its time, The Thieves never would have been mistaken for any kind of innovative game changer. But ten years on, the level of entertainment it provides proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes it’s not about changing the game, it’s about playing it to win.
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