The Thieves may look like Ocean's Eleven from the onset, with its star studded ensemble cast from South Korea and Hong Kong combining forces for the most parts in what would be a casino and jewel caper. But instead of having one primary heist as the central focus for all the characters, The Thieves present a whole lot more, used to introduce the different team's capabilities, and providing plenty of twists and turns as the story progressed. In short, it was a real treat and a wild ride to have the usual plot developments of the genre, with the betrayals and conflicting motivations all clashing together, and delivered with pin point perfection.
In the South Korean camp, there's Lee Jung-Jae as Popie, de-facto leader, who had assembled his team consisting of slinky cat burglar Yenicall (Jeon Ji-Hyun), veteran and linguist Chewingum (Kim Hae-Suk), and cable operator Zampano (Kim Soo-Hyun), to fleece a rich curator. They get contacted by Macao Park (Kim Yun-Seok), one time ex-partner of Popie, who had dangled an opportunity for a casino and jewel raid, and for the job, Popie brings along Pepsee (Kim Hye-Soo), recently out on parole, much to Macao Park's displeasure. The complex job also requires the team work with the Hong Kong camp, whom Macao contacted for assistance, which means an expanded motley crew comprising of leader Chen (Simon Yam), safe-cracker Julie (Angelica Lee), and regular goons in Andrew (Oh Dai-Su) and Johnny (Kwok Cheung Tsang). But there's enough to go around, since the plan is to rob a jewel in the premises of a casino in Macau, then sell it back to its original owner, the mysterious Wei Hong (Ki Guk-Seo).
The story by Choi Dong-Hun and Lee Gi-Cheol is kept extremely tight despite the myriad of characters involved, with director Choi expertly cutting through characters and their respective story arcs, with flashbacks used to introduce each and every one of them, coupled with surprises that throw up individual character motivations. This adds an extra spice to the proceedings, because like a poker game, we are the only ones who had a sneak peek into their respective roles, and what their intent is from the get go, with an expectation that things aren't always what they seem. We're lulled into complacency that we know it all, until another surprise gets thrown up to knock us off our balance. And doing so without cheating - which involves randomly or forcefully including unbelievable or illogical moments - was something of a feat.
Which is pretty amazing, because the pace of the narrative is never let down, interspersing adrenaline pumping moments with quieter scenes, and the usual heist film montage expectation where the Plan gets played out as the team embarks on their surveillance and preparation work, before the real thing. And that only covers less than half the film, with the second half trading characters for more stunt work and action, and given that it's a Korean film after all, had its focus shifted back to the Korean actors. The way that characters come, go, and the narrative bringing up sub plots, work wonderfully well, especially in setting up what were to follow from surprising moments.
But in a cinematic world where there is no honour amongst thieves, a romance also got thrown in to shake things up a little, especially when emotions play a key role in the building of various alliances and plans that each individual sets in motion in pursuing their self interests. It plays with what you know and have established, feeding you with new facts that would make you change your opinion about someone or some situation, and then decide who you would root for in this bunch of ten skilled professionals. They slag each other when there's opportunity to, backstab and form new partnerships, some even quite moving, especially when you know that Trust amongst the players is really a rare commodity.
No effort got spared in designing the action and heist sequences in the movie, making it a delight to watch since things are kept relatively fresh. Tom Cruise's building climbing escapade is well documented in M:I: Ghost Protocol, and while they aren't scaling the highest building in the world here, the film more than made up for it in the frequency, number of people involved, and at a much faster pace thanks to technology being unavailable other than a strong cable, a threaded indication, and lots of guts.
It's no surprise that this film has so far been South Korea's box office champion, given the slick execution of its action, and an all round good story involving boring cops and sexy/suave robbers. The handling of the languages here - Cantonese and Korean - in the way the characters interact, is a definite draw, as something that was handled close to perfection, because in the real world accents will come to play, and this one had attention to detail.