Film Review: The Thieves

Crooks team up to steal a diamond from a Macao casino in this well-made Korean caper movie.

Since it opened in July, The Thieves has become Korea's highest-grossing domestic film to date. A clever take on caper movies, this casino heist has an appealing cast, tricky plotting, and strong, vivid action. While it doesn't break much new ground, it has enough tricks to keep viewers entertained.

A long opening sequence shows how a team lead by Popie (Lee Jung-jae) steals an antique vase from a private art gallery. First the sexy Yenicall (Gianna Jun) beguiles the gallery owner, then Popie (better translated as "Popeye") and his cohorts shoot a steel cable from an adjoining building. A diversion lets Yenicall climb down the cable into the gallery and steal the vase, leaving a cheap replica behind.

Pressured by cops and needing quick cash, Popie and his gang next head to Hong Kong, where they team up with local crooks in a plan to steal the legendary "Tear of the Sun" diamond from a casino in Macao. Joining Popie is the newly paroled Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo), a safecracker. She's paired with a rival Hong Kong safecracker, Julie (Angelica Lee). Also in the Hong Kong gang: Chen (Simon Yam), one of the few people to have survived an encounter with gangster Wei Hong (Kee Kook-seo).

Unfortunately, the diamond belongs to Wei's mistress. What's more, Macao Park (Kim Yun-seok), the mastermind behind the robbery, plans to sell the diamond back to Wei. Popie and Pepsee believe Macao double-crossed them during an earlier robbery, and may be seeking revenge against him. The Koreans don't trust any of the Hong Kong crooks; Chen seems to be focusing on an entirely different crime; and at least one member of the gang appears to be an undercover cop. The conflicts come to a boil right in the middle of the intricate robbery.

Like Steven Soderbergh's Ocean’s films, a lot of the fun in The Thieves comes during the planning stages. Yenicall's efforts to seduce a floor manager go awry when it turns out he's gay; luckily, Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun), the team's muscle, is willing to pitch in to help steal his passkey.

Director and co-writer Choi Dong-hoon handles the heist—which involves three safes and some split-second timing—adroitly. Where The Thieves really shines is in the crime's aftermath, as the crooks turn on one another with increasing violence. Choi waits until the last half-hour to unleash the film's best action, including a frenzied, three-way gunfight that ranges over and through a tenement apartment building.

Kim Yun-seok finds a good balance between his character's world-weary defensiveness and sneaky wiles; Lee Jung-jae is equally good in a difficult role as the suspicious Popie. And Hong Kong star Simon Yam is an old hand at this sort of film, turning in an effortlessly affable performance.

But it's the women who really shine here. Gianna Jun is dazzling as an acrobat and seducer, showing off a breezy sexuality that's both funny and intimidating. Kim Hye-soo is just as good as the betrayed Pepsee, especially during her safecracking scenes.

Some plot twists in The Thieves work better than others, particularly when Choi tries to wrap up loose ends in the film's final minutes. But if you're a fan of caper movies, The Thieves is unexpectedly satisfying.