REVIEW: 도둑들 [The Thieves] [2012]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 135 minutes | Release Date: July 25th, 2012 (South Korea)
Studio: Showbox/Mediaplex / Well Go USA Entertainment
Director(s): Dong-Hoon Choi
Writer(s): Dong-Hoon Choi & Gi-cheol Lee

“Of course. We specialize in miracles.”

Saying Dodookdeul [The Thieves] is the Korean Ocean’s 11—like I had been after reading the synopsis—ended up not being as hyperbolic as I originally thought. Coming from one of the country’s most successful writer/directors and starring a bunch of familiar faces in Asian cinema, it’s an easy comparison to make with or without the main heist involving a casino (it does). What Dong-Hoon Choi and co-writer Lee Gi-Cheol have done above that premise, however, is add in some stunning wire-work action sequences, more twists than its hefty 135-minutes runtime should have to handle, and the intrigue of what happens when you combine rival thieving crews from two countries who have worked with each other before to varying degrees of success. A twenty million dollar payday quickly finds itself taking a backseat to a desire for revenge.

Circling around master criminal Macao Park (Yun-seok Kim) and his quest to steal the Tear of the Sun diamond from notorious kingpin Wei Hong before then selling it back to him, the film’s first act moves fast. His old partner Popie (Jung-Jae Lee) is enlisted with a crew from Korea while aging veteran Chen (Simon Yam) brings his Chinese contingent to the table. Each has a specific job to do from staking out the area, setting up elaborate wire rigs, smuggling guns into the casino, and stalling the keeper of the jewel in the VIP room while cracking her safe on the 30th floor. It’s a sprawling montage of disparate personalities clashing and embracing each other as allegiances switch and double crosses occur in rapid succession. Acquiring the diamond is only the first step, though, as escaping proves almost impossible.

Shot over twenty-seven days in China (Macau, Hong Kong) and Korea (Seoul, Busan) with unfettered access inside the stunning City of Dreams Casino, The Thieves is a blockbuster of thrills and action that shoots back and forth through time so we can discover each player’s true motivations. Popie and Chen have personal stakes in the heist while safecrackers Pepsee (Hye-su Kim) and Julie (Angelica Lee) join for her first job since a lengthy jail sentence and first out from under her father’s shadow respectively. Add in vain beauty Yenicall (Gianna Jun), the boy pining over her (Soo Hyun Kim‘s Zampano), Chewingum’s (Hae-suk Kim) out-of-retirement drunk con woman, and Andrew’s (Dal-su Oh) doltish brute and you’ve got a group of miscreants just begging to test loyalties and skill in the biggest job of any of their careers.

Choi does a great job keeping us entertained with a streak of humor cutting through the suspense. An opening art gallery caper involving the brilliant self-deprecating pomp of victim Ha-kyun Shin infuses this tone early as bickering runs rampant and tiny mistakes add physical pratfalls to risk blowing the Koreans’ cover. It shows how Popie’s crew may not be as ‘professional’ as he’d like to think while an almost-botched jewelry store robbery a country away is one sneeze from putting Chen and his men in jail. Their messy expertise ends up the film’s strongest suit as we bask in the joy of watching their errors and how everyone else compensates. We become open to the fact everything may go disastrously wrong and the full-scale table turn occurring under our noses with tragic fallout catches us off-guard as a result.

And here is where my issue with the breakneck speed, overly clever bow-tied plot, and massive information overload began because the casino is only half the film. While this shouldn’t be a problem considering the successful, action-heavy second act that drops much of the humor for increased drama, its close was handled with a fantastically surprising level of gravitas. I was legitimately shocked by the turn of events and loved how darkly splendid each character’s fate became. But before I could get up from my seat still awestruck by its chaotic finish’s simplicity, I discovered there was still almost an hour to go of even more attempts at retribution and just deserts. What was a second ago ingenious and fresh became just one more neatly calculated chess move towards a more cheerily winked conclusion.

I shouldn’t fault Choi for expertly crafting such an intricate web, but I’d be lying to not mention how exasperated I felt by the end. Like two different films combined together, though, there should definitely be enough for fans of Soderbergh‘s trilogy as well as actioners like The Raid. Yun-seok Kim’s engagement in a lengthy high-octane battle propelled from the side of an apartment building while men with automatic weapons attempt to take him out will actually make you forget the performing nuance of what transpired to get us there. And while it all may go overboard, nothing ever seems out of place contextually to the plot because we aren’t dealing with normal, everyday folk here. These are intelligent backstabbers forever on the wrong side of the law willing to do whatever is necessary.

The actors are definitely up to the task with each partaking in a bit of comedy, drama, and action before bowing out. Ex-lovers face-off, new lovers are made, truths are revealed, and even an undercover cop infiltrates the handpicked crew. With natural rapport and a keen eye for detail making sure everyone’s movements hold multiple meanings and secretive ploys, the cast is having fun while also flexing their skills opposite equally impressive talent. Production value is through the roof—check out the computer composite work of Gianna Jun climbing a skyscraper’s glass façade—and there isn’t a lull to be had as the titular thieves race towards an explosive end far from the deliberate plans hatched with ulterior motives. If this is a sign of Choi’s past work, I can’t wait to check out the rest.

[1] Macao Park [Yun-seok Kim] and Popie [Jung-jae Lee] are competing criminal masterminds in THE THIEVES, directed by Dong-hoon Choi
[2] Popie [Jung-jae Lee] heads a crew of criminals in THE THIEVES, directed by Dong-hoon Choi
[3] Yenicall [Gianna Jun] turns heads and scales walls in THE THIEVES, directed by Dong-hoon Choi

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