Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Thieves (2012) Movie Review

Sometimes genre isn't merely a checklist of concepts tasked with reaching out to larger audiences, and is akin to a language that multiple diverse cultures must meet halfway upon in the name of a globalized populist cinema. In the last ten years alone, we have seen other countries rise to the challenge that Hollywood had long claimed domain, to occasionally classic-making results. So when we consider Dong-hoon Choi 's grand paean to the international heist comedy, it might come to no surprise that South Korea might very well be one of the last great bastions of movie scale outside of tentpole filmmaking. When a two mildly dysfunctional teams of professional thieves collaborate on a casino job for a one-of-a-kind diamond, matters are intensified by old flames, delicate bonds, and an ever complicated security arena. The Korean team, led by the younger and foolhardy Popie(Lee Jung-Jae), eager to prove themselves beyond mid-scale capers, and team Hong Kong, run by the smooth-natured, Chen (played to charismatic highs by HK favorite, Simon Yam), who's group contains its own idiosyncratic breaks in the armor seek a prized connection and mentor, whilst courting unprecedented danger levels with the addition of master thief. And while this simple premise is on the whole terribly familiar, much like the characters within the story, the secret to Thieves' blazing success lies in understanding the framework, technical chutzpah, and terrific ensemble.

Starting within an awkward comic setup involving a secretive art dealer's stash ( a con which will come heavily into play later), Popie and his crew show a quick flare for improvisation, but perhaps a tragic lack of grace. Popie's team consists of elder linguist and veteran, Chewingum(Kim Hae-Suk), ambitious cat burglar, Yenicall (Jeon Ji-hyun),  and cable assistant, Zampano (Kim Soo-Hyun) who find themselves capable, but have garnered something of a dangerous trail. Revealing something of a lack of foresight on the part of this weird cadre of career criminals, Popie receives a call from once penniless, but now legendary heister, Macao Park(Yun-seok Kim) in hopes of guaranteed success.  And with good timing as the authorities are practically knocking on Popie's door. So when the central hit involves a frightfully secure casino, and a plan to steal a jewel, only to sell it back to its owner - a notorious gangster, it really becomes a nasty rock & hard place scenario. So when Park also realizes that Popie has also tapped the newly released from parole Pepsee (Kim Hye-Soo), things are made even more unstable.

And the less we go into Chen's group, which includes only somewhat dependable talent such as Andrew(Oh Dai-su) , Johnny(Kwok Cheung Tsang), and a safe cracking legacy in Julie(Angelica Lee of The Eye fame), perhaps the better.

Right away, Choi's propensity for kinetics & humor confidently introduce us into the world, and makes no bones about this being little more than stylized fun. While stakes do in fact reveal themselves to be very real, a lot of it is done in a frenetic, decompression-happy manner where crap does in fact "get real", but is almost responded to with a sly gag or cool-headed display of sardonicism. Really more of a jazzed-up remix of his earlier hits, The Big Swindle, and Tazza: The High Rollers, Thieves is also quite eager to please in its attempts to match/surpass much of what has come before in the subgenre. The bulk of the film finds itself rather comfortable weaving and whisking in between the varied, and often dysfunctional characters, often revealing some satisfying dollops of complexity, even as the action ramps up to Mission Impossible levels at times.

Another exciting angle worth mentioning, it's the openness to a more globalized world that also makes Thieves stand out. With characters flippantly jostling between asian languages, the whole affair feels very much like how one would imagine an intricate spy or even futuristic science fiction novel. The diversity on display is not only inspiring but energizing for a glossy piece of escapist silliness. There's clearly a lot of effort being made on set to make this more than an Oceans knockoff, in fact, it seems far more involved than that series ever dared itself to be. It's perfectly comfortable in a contemporary world, and such a focus is kind of rare even now.  

Also worthy of major note, is the cinematography by Yeong-hwan Choi which takes impressive advantage of location shooting in Busan, Seoul, Macau & Hong Kong, which is often gorgeous, and evocative of the best caper films of the past. At times it feels more than ready to take on the Bond franchise, and could probably do with with simple ease.

Now where the film perhaps suffers a bit, it's perhaps in our lack of central emotional compass. It's no spoiler to declare much of the cast to be morally muddy, and that some of the more likeable characters do not see the final reel. But as this is a kind of almost classic Lupin III world that is bring portrayed here, it stands to reason that we are in a den of would-be anti-heroes, not necessarily working in the interest of the group. And yet somehow, Choi figures out ways to make us feel more than mere resentment for being around such a den of squabbling vipers for nearly two hours. In fact, there are moments interspersed within the action that are capable of leaving one perhaps even a little charmed. In classic caper fashion, there is always someone far worse watching from within plain sight, and it is here that the movie dares us to play the bad guy for a spell. He is having an opulent party at our moral expense, and it doesn't feel like a terribly steep price to pay.

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