For all its flaws — and they are legion — “King of Thieves” wraps you in a fuzzy blanket of familiarity. Like the Cockney-crime-caper genre the movie calls home, its over-the-hill leads are showing their age. Yet there’s something cheering about their refusal to be sequestered in doddery grandpa roles: When you were once known for playing heartbreakers, leg-breakers or wide boys who lead with their fists, the slippers-and-sweaters ghetto must hold little appeal.
No less than the third film to be based on the 2015 Hatton Garden heist, in which four retired ex-cons masterminded what one prosecutor called “the largest burglary in English legal history,” “King of Thieves” is unabashed old-school entertainment. The tone is jaunty and the patter thick as Brian (Michael Caine), recently bereaved, medicates his loneliness by planning one last job: robbing a vault in the jewelry district. Roping in his old pals Kenny (Tom Courtenay), Terry (Jim Broadbent) and Danny (Ray Winstone) — a geezer jackpot of deafness, diabetes and hip replacement — Brian also includes a young protégé (Charlie Cox) to deactivate the vault’s alarm system.
Communicating in rough insults and rhyming slang, these artful codgers are, for a time, fun to watch. Jokes about knee liniment, disability payments and insulin jabs pepper Joe Penhall’s script, and characters called Frankie the Fence and Billy the Fish bob and weave in the movie’s margins. If you’re in the right mood, this will all go down as easily as a warm brew in an East End pub; otherwise, you’ll begin to notice the sketchy plotting and slack pacing. Relying too often on blasts of on-the-nose vintage pop music from the likes of Tom Jones and the Turtles, the director, James Marsh, struggles to inject an excitement that no one is feeling. And when a vein of nastiness opens beneath the banter (who knew Broadbent could be so wickedly threatening?) as ancient resentments swell and burst, the backstabbing menace feels jarringly out of place.
This darker turn could have worked had Marsh shown us his real-life likely lads in their by all accounts more ruthless criminal heydays. Instead, we get random flashbacks to the actors’ former glories, like 1960s-era Caine and Courtenay in “The Italian Job” and “Billy Liar” — sentimental call-outs to audiences old enough to remember them. In this way, “King of Thieves” reveals its main concern and source of humor isn’t thieving, but aging — which, as anyone will tell you, is no joke at all.