A dazzling heist film that can’t help but come off as duly influenced by Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, South Korea’s number one box-office champ of all time is never less than clever. The big job, which usually climaxes these sorts of films, takes up the story’s meaty center, leaving the characters’ labyrinthine motivations to unfurl for a full hour. And as always, the thieves are a team of types: Popie (Jung-jae Lee) is a tall, urbane, fake-mustachioed mastermind; Yenicall (Gianna Jun) is a hot pickpocket who uses her feminine wiles to rappel down buildings; Chewingum (Hye-soo Kim) is an actress who specializes in playing clueless old ladies; Pepsee (Hae-sook Kim) knows how to break safes; and the gang trots out pretty-boy Zampano (Soo-hyun Kim) whenever they need eye candy. They team up with a former associate named Macao Park (Yun-seok Kim) to steal a 318-carat diamond from a hardened spinster named Tiffany with a serious gambling problem. Popie and Macao Park don’t see eye to eye after an earlier job gone bust, but the latter’s fealty to a triad fence known only as Wei Hong keeps everybody focused on securing the diamond for themselves.
The crew has a playful, bullshitting work culture; their one-liners are almost Bogartian. After dating a hapless art dealer for five months just to get access to his collection, Yenicall counts her money: “Only cash can make up for my bygone youth.” Cons and gags are keenly character-driven, so when Zampano finds himself making out, unconvincingly, with a gay swindler at a bar so Yenicall can steal the guy’s wallet, we manage to feel bad for both men, and thus be in even more awe of Yenicall’s skills. Chewingum’s alcoholism and constant worrying give way to an unexpected romance with Chen (Johnnie To regular Simon Yam), an older thief brought in by Park on the Chinese side, and as they must play a Japanese couple in the casino, they fall awkwardly in love in another language.
Nearly any ensemble heist movie is an elaborate plea (or argument) for the audience’s love. The contemporary exception is Ocean’s Twelve, which was so pugnaciously “stylish” it seemed bloated, standoffish, unrecognizable. With its cheeky horn-driven soundtrack, Dong-hoon’s film never wavers from Hollywood caper logic: If the viewers are generous to the characters, then the payoff will be generous to the viewers. And the cinematography is utterly modern, with the camera never fixating on any one thief in particular, nor accentuating any element of any scene that the thieves haven’t observed or touched for themselves. Dong-hoon may have favorites, but the movie isn’t too baroque in over-explaining its heroes.
In fact, the reunion of Popie and Park is the script’s ultimate MacGuffin; there’s no reason why, especially following amber-tinted flashbacks of betrayal, the two master thieves would work together again, unless it was out of despair. For a while, The Thieves doesn’t seem to be exporting a lot of distinct themes or ideas; smooth and spry, it doesn’t jibe with the mercilessness of movies like The Host, Oldboy, and Welcome To Dongmakgol that has become contemporary South Korean cinema’s calling card. But when the heist goes wrong, suddenly The Thieves looks more dangerous—and a lot less American. After abruptly shooting up a parking garage full of cops, Chen hits the road, with Chewingum in the passenger’s side. Exhilarated to survive, she screams, “Chen! I love you!” And he whispers, “Please say it one more time,” then lifts up his hands to reveal a lap full of blood.