An homage to the grimy-yet-golden era of British crime cinema, the entertaining King of Thieves is self-consciously aware of its ‘70s roots. But although the whole cast seems to be having a good time, it’s nothing more than an empty-calories heist flick.

Britain in the ‘70s was at its absolute dingiest and on the cusp of Thatcherism. Nevertheless, this dreary time boasted at least one booming industry, generating a steady stream of Criterion Collection-worthy crime thrillers such as The Long Good Friday, Get Carter and Happy New Year. Many of these reflected a shift within the crime genre among Euro-American audiences from heist films in the ‘60s to gangster/mobster flicks in the post-Godfather ‘70s. By the ‘90s, when the cycle had reset with Tarantino and Soderbergh making bank robbers and jewel thieves sexy again, the best films were being made in the USA instead of the United Kingdom.

Alongside such films as Red and Stand Up Guys, King of Thieves is yet one more take on the recent gag of casting gray-haired actors as menacing characters capable of extreme violence. After his wife dies, heist king Brian Reader (Michael Caine) is sad, unmoored and lonely. With a tip from a young protégé, he brings together a crew of similarly aged and depressed old-timers (Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay and the token spry “young” guy, Ray Winstone) to pull off one final job and retire to Mediterranean beaches. The heist gets complicated, but when the bandits finally make off with the jewels and gold hidden in the vaults of Hatton Garden, they discover that actually turning their booty into legal tinder is the real struggle.

The second half of King of Thieves details this particular complication and is full of double crosses and lots of mutual distrust among the crew. The old men, not understanding the brave new world of mass surveillance and ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, quickly find themselves ever more tightly enmeshed in a police net that soon has them locked up.

Any viewer who has seen a few heist films knows where this one is headed more or less from the opening frames. The real pleasure inKing of Thieves lies in the dialogue among the wizened cast members. Caine and company trade ever crueler barbs about being too old, too medically unfit or just too unable to hold their bladders to really pull off the job. The jokes are funny because they go beyond the hackneyed lines usually bringing down these sorts of films about the old guys not being computer literate. They aren’t computer literate, but screenwriter Joe Penhall (“Mindhunter”) finds more laughs in Broadbent’s unstable, physically-deteriorating Terry threatening to castrate or immolate anyone who dares backstab him than in his inability to use a laptop.

What really makes the movie sing is that it is all too self-aware. In its closing moments, it’s clear that Caine, Courtenay and Winstone know that they have been playing thugs and thieves for 50 years, and throughout the 100-plus-minute run-time director James Marsh alludes to the long IMDb pages of its stars. Everyone here laughs about the fact that they are still breaking into vaults on camera. There is even a reference to the long-running gag in The Trip trilogy of the hilarity that ensues from imitating Caine’s distinct accent. King of Thieves is at heart a movie about the pleasure of making and viewing cinema–whether it is inconsequential or not.

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