In the old geezer heist drama King of Thieves, the true crime is a lack of ambition

Michael Caine leads a dysfunctional gang of ageing London criminals in the real-life story of a massive 2015 safety deposit box heist. The cast is impressive and the director qualified, but no-one appears to be on the same page, writes critic Craig Mathieson.

Urged to finally rob an underground London safety deposit box facility that’s long lured him, elderly London criminal Brian Reader (Michael Caine) has a straightforward reason for saying no: “too many stairs for me at my age.” When the widower reconsiders – it’s not clear whether it’s out of bereavement, pride, or simply force of habit – Brian finds himself assembling a mostly geriatric gang of geezers to pull off the job, complete with insulin injection schedules and hearing aid issues. Danny Jones (Ray Winstone) is the baby of the group at a sprightly 60-years-old.

Based on the headline-making April 2015 Hatton Garden Robbery, King of Thieves is a novel spin on the ageing thespian genre. Instead of making the most of their twilight years in an Indian hotel or by taking a last chance road trip, these esteemed British actors are plotting a heist and indulging in some choice Cockney slang – if you’ve ever wanted to see Jim Broadbent smash a chair and menace an associate with the debris, this is your movie. The problem is that these professional criminals shouldn’t be as likable as the film wants them to be, while the rapport initially shared by Brian, Danny, Broadbent’s Terry Perkins, and Tom Courtenay’s Kenny Collins doesn’t suggest the supposed depths of their corruption.

Director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) threads through black and white snippets from classic British screen crimes to suggest the heritage of his motley crew, but the storytelling mostly unfolds in a void. There’s barely a sense of the criminal milieu that has supplanted the ageing thieves, or the risk that comes from other criminals robbing the robbers.

The plot suggests that the security at Hatton Garden was as creaky as the gang, with a younger inside man, Basil (Daredevil’s Charlie Cox), providing a key to the door and electrical system bypasses, but it can’t settle on a theme, let along develop it. The lucrative heist itself, which took two nights over an Easter long weekend, lacks tension, although there’s a telling touch in that every hand involved pockets something for themselves.

Central to the film’s failings is the miscasting of Michael Caine. The actor’s latter years have been defined by his mentor roles in the superhero and science-fiction films of Christopher Nolan, a gig Caine delivers with loving ruefulness and a hint of steely regret. King of Thieves gives Brian a protégé in Basil, and Caine’s sonorous voice hits every elegiac note when dispensing advice such as “If you enjoy this job, you’re not doing it properly.” But Brian isn’t quite the maestro the picture want him to be. He’s old and nervous, and the gear’s grind in the middle of the film when he turns his back on the incomplete job. The late, great Bob Hoskins could have done so much more with the pathos of the part.

Marsh and screenwriter Joe Penhall (The Road) are trying to work around the sad realities that permeate the story; they make gags out of the gang’s failings, with Michael Gambon playing a fence who is mainly defined by his incompetence and incontinence. This old firm is obsolescent, but they don’t really know it, and they’re oblivious to the data-driven investigation that unfolds with notably sharper pacing. Another English filmmaker, Mike Newell, used similar circumstances to create a tragedy in the 1997 organised crime drama Donnie Brasco, where Al Pacino’s low-level wiseguy finds himself bypassed and ultimately sacrificed. King of Thieves is merely happy to end as it begins, with its storied stars burnished by their shared banter. The true crime here is a lack of ambition.