Netflix Instant Files: The Thieves

The Thieves, now available on Netflix Instant, is like a Korean Ocean’s 11.  At least, that’s what Netflix would have you believe.  The given summary calls it a “slick caper flick,” and it boasts an ensemble cast and a promise of a diamond heist.  The film is Korea’s highest grossing ever, taking in millions more at its domestic box office than The Avengers.  So for all appearances it delivers on Netflix’s promises.

the thieves walk

The slick, slow-mo heist walk.

And it does.  Just not in the way you’d expect.  The Thieves is like Ocean’s 11 all right, at least for the first quarter or so of the movie.  After that the fun, or “slick” caper element is abandoned, and it gives way to action and car chases that are more reminiscent of The Italian Job.  Even those pass, and as the movie continues, it reminds more of The Departed, or more apt (in part because much of the film is set in Hong Kong), Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong crime movie on which The Departed was based.

The Thieves changes its genre seamlessly while not changing its overall tone.  The shifts from one act to another flow without interruption, as more and more depth to the plot and characters keeps being revealed from within like matryoshkas.

In the film, two larcenous groups from Korea and China come together to steal the $20 million “Tear of Sun” diamond.  They’re united by Macao Park, a famous Korean thief who’s lately been making a name for himself in China.  A contact of Macao’s informs them that the diamond’s owner keeps it at a casino in Macau, so the groups unite to pull off an elaborate heist.

They actually break into the safe early in the film.

They actually break into the safe early in the film.

For a while everything seems to be going as slick and smooth as the film’s description indicates, but soon before the heist is complete pieces of the plan begin to fall apart.  The break spreads through the whole operation like a crack skating through glass, and before long the group, most of whom didn’t trust each other all that much anyway, finds itself fragmented.  For the rest of the film our cast is separated into smaller groups, some working directly against others, as they try to piece together what happened to their operation: whether it just went wrong, if they were doomed from the start, or if they were set up all along.

I couldn’t help thinking of Ocean’s 11 a lot while watching.  I preferred a number of things about The Thieves.  First was the handling of the ensemble cast.  That in The Thieves might not be as quirky and fun as Ocean’s 11, but the secondary characters have more depth.  You think you have them pegged for who they are at the beginning — like you do with Ocean’s 11 — but unlike that film, most of them become more as the story goes on.  They’re not just the bickering twins or the guy who likes to blow stuff up.  Characters in The Thieves are first painted in broad strokes, but those strokes are refined and clarified during the course of the film.

We never get as much resolution with this guy as I'd like, because aww, what a cutie.

We never get as much resolution with this guy as I’d like. Shame, because he was a cutie.

Not everyone gets the same level of treatment, of course.  The movie would be much too long if they did.  There are a few characters on the heist team that the film loses track of, but most of the characters really develop in interesting ways over the course of the film.  I also loved how they interacted with each other: the Korean and Chinese teams don’t trust each other that much, because they’ve never worked together before.  Even within the set teams, many characters had their own things going on and looked out for themselves first.

That makes a lot of sense: it’s often strange to watch a heist movie and have all the characters, supposed thieves and law breakers and general ne’er-do-wells, all look out for each other with such loyalty.  The “honor amongst thieves” concept doesn’t really make that much sense, and while the success of heist films often hinges on us liking the characters — and for us to like them, we don’t want to see them constantly stab each other in the back — it was refreshing to watch a film where everyone was only really loyal until it was no longer convenient.

The other standout for me of The Thieves, and its biggest contrast to (and in my opinion superior trait to) Ocean’s 11 was the female characters.  Ocean’s 11 has only one.  Yes, the sequels may do a little better, but in Ocean’s 11, Tess’s character entirely revolves around Danny Ocean’s.  She’s a chess piece moved around the board between Ocean and Benedict, the real prize Ocean was after and a bigger heist than the money itself.

Awesome ladies being awesome.

Awesome ladies being awesome.

Not so in The Thieves.  This movie has four main female characters, and all of them are members of the crew.  There are the inevitable romantic entanglements, but those do not define the characters. At the end, the last word is had between Pepsee and Yenicall, arguably the two primary female characters.

In fact, the film opens on a heist pulled off by a team that’s half women.  It’s the women who put the most work into the job, pulling the public Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan roles, while the men work in the background.  Even better, one of those women is older.  She, nicknamed Chewingum, and Yenicall, manipulate the mark by posing as a mother-daughter duo in a “meeting of the family” con.  It’s hilarious, and a fantastic start to the film.

Too often women are accessories in heist movies, even if they get to be members of the team.  In The Thieves, their presence isn’t treated any differently than that of the men (even if one character can’t stop hitting on Yenicall, she takes none of it and he’s condemned for his actions).  Their presence made me enjoy the film all the more, because I wasn’t just watching men running the action the entire time.

The Thieves is a slick heist flick, but it’s a lot more than that, and the caper antics fade as the film goes on.  It clips along at a fast, matter-of-fact pace, and it’s one of the best heist films I’ve seen in a long time.


You can also buy or rent The Thieves from Amazon.