Korea's 'Thieves' a Lively Emulation of the Ocean's Formula

Directed by: Choi Dong-hoon; Runtime: 135 minutes
Grade: B-

Sometimes, despite looking like it'll go one way within genre conventions, a movie surprises those watching with how it diverts from expectations; other times, it's shocking to see how tightly one might mirrors its influences. The Thieves garners both impressions: most of Choi Dong-hoon's film acts as if Stephen Soderbergh remade his remake of Ocean's Eleven through a proxy for the Korean market, then late in the game departs from its expected framework before it grows too familiar. No shortage of exhilarating, eye-grabbing filmmaking will be found in this by-the-numbers heist thriller; safe dials spinning, bodies rappelling down an apartment, and quick cuts between operation-prep scenes craft it into a modish display of what makes this one of cinema's most enduring genres. There's simply little ground here that hasn't been retreaded many times over, and despite charisma, polish, and an infectious momentum, it doesn't amount to much more than a routine character caper -- albeit, a rather entertaining one.

With the police hot on their trail following a long-con operation to procure a specific piece of art, a pack of high-caliber thieves -- led by a young but seasoned pro, Popeye (Lee Jung-jae, Typhoon) -- answer the call for a job in Macau in order to let the tension in Korea simmer down. The job, orchestrated by Popeye's defunct partner, Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok, The Chaser), involves combining two forces: the Korean crew and a cluster of equally-talented thieves from China, led by the graying veteran Chen (Simon Yam). Their directive involves breaking into a fairly high-security casino in order to snatch a diamond from its vaults, which might prove difficult considering the vast loyalty issues between both sides; while obvious distrust looms between two clusters of thieves whom don't know each other, there's also internal unrest within each one. As tensions mount and D-Day quickly approaches, they'll have to stomach each other's idiosyncrasies and flaws in order to nab their $20million jackpot.

The thieves themselves take center stage, naturally, establishing an atmosphere of stratagems and second-guessing as their actions bare their moral standpoints, motivations, and impulses while they're burrowed in their hideouts. Choi Dong-hoon juggles a bevy of shifting character types -- dueling female rogues, a wire expert (Gianna Jun) and a safe cracker (Kim Hye-soo), competing for superiority; aging veterans Chewingum (Kim Hae-sook) and Chen wanting to get out of the game; and a dense dullard and a much-younger upstart -- as they serve their purposes, weaving a varied tonal fabric that underscores the weatherworn "honor among thieves" concept with bickering and grandstanding, hefty drinking and happenstance romance. Flashbacks also offer glimpses into the ways that some of them once knew each other, the backstabs and romances drenched in steely-styled cinematography, portraying a clear emotional arc as the day draws nearer. There's a lot going on, at times excessively so, and some of those connections get lost in a tangle of crossed wires.

Choi Dong-hoon's perspective on the casino caper itself is polished, methodical, and candidly exhilarating, yet it also lacks the diversity from its Western contemporaries to distract from its doting rhythm. Glossy modernized photography captures bleeding yellow lighting and the sleek metal sheen on gears and dials, framing safe-crackers and pistol-wielders in an ultra-modern aesthetic that doesn't linger long enough on the rogue's gallery to label a hero among them. Its familiarity doesn't go unobserved, however, since every step of The Thieves reveals page after page taken from Soderbergh's playbook, from the diversions and meetings prior to the heist to the hot-potato editing between brisk moments. The momentum it generates largely masks these concerns, though; the context, offhand humor, and empathy imparted by the rogues themselves shape the thrashing twists and turns into bracing chartbuster entertainment. But a pronounced sense of déjà vu eases up little amid the bustle.

That is, until The Thieves plays its hand. Eventually, Choi Dong-hoon adopts a cavalier attitude with the caper's trajectory, not only leaving the audience uncertain of where the outcome will arrive, but also who will make it out of the deadly chase at all. The shaky camaraderie among the rogues becomes ripe for moral grayness and cutthroat scheming, unraveling in a volatile, noticeably more stark fashion that doesn't shy away from death or allowing none of its characters to appear virtuous. Again, though, the plotting grows too convoluted for its own good; a blur of car crashes, gunfire, face prosthetics and back-alley dealings destine this heist-thriller to remain obfuscated by its own mundane maze of details, more compelled to knee-jerk reactions than confidently sticking the landing. The unraveling of Choi Dong-hoon characters takes precedent here, though, the roguish sarcasm and inner turmoil embracing his stylized outlook on a weatherworn genre. Danny Ocean's crew this isn't, but they get the job done.

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