Principal Cast : Matthias Schweighofer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Guz Khan, Ruby O Fee, Stuart Martin, Jonathan Cohen, Christian Steyer, Barnara Meier, Noemie Nakai, John Bubniak, Hiroyuki Sanada.
Synopsis: Six years before the events of Army of the Dead, during the beginning stages of the zombie outbreak, Ludwig Dieter is in his early days of safecracking. He is hired by a mysterious woman to pull off a heist with the help of a misfit crew of aspiring thieves.
Of all the character presented in Zack Snyder’s zombie-apocalypse thriller Army of The Dead, the last one I’d have through worthy of a spin-off would be Matthias Schweighöfer’s safecracking German Ludwig Dieter. That said spin-off, Army of Thieves, is not only an order of magnitude more enjoyable than the film which spawned it, but Schweighöfer (who pulls both lead actor and director duty here) makes his character so lovable, is an absolute surprise in itself. I found his performance as Dieter in Snyder’s film annoyingly one-note, and felt he was among that film’s weaker elements overall: redemption is here, for not only is Schweighöfer’s Ludwig Dieter a terrific character but his arc marries up with, and actually improves upon, that depicted in the earlier film. To be frank, Army of Thieves was a bloody great time as a heist movie – less so as a loose tie-in to Snyder’s zombie flick, with jarring inserts of zombies feeling at odds with the off-balance tone with which the Schweighöfer flavours his film – and having it actually be more enjoyable and less of a chore than the original movie merely amplifies my exuberance.
Set six years or so prior to the events told in Snyder’s film, Army of Thieves begins with the zombie outbreak in America being in its infancy. With the world going to hell, internationally wanted thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel – Fast & Furious saga, Game of Thrones) recruits German safecracking YouTuber Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert (Matthias Schweighöfer) as part of her gang, including getaway driver Rolf (Guz Kahn), hacker Korina (Ruby O Fee) and the Muscle, Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), to break into three legendary vaults crafted by equally legendary safe builder Hans Wagner, and based around the four acts to “The Ring Of The Nibelungs,” a quartet of operas written by Richard Wagner. In pursuit are Interpol agents Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) and Beatrix (Noemie Nakai), hoping to thwart their mission to steal millions from hitherto uncrackable vaults.
One part comedy, one part horror film, one part action movie, and an all-round sense of the absurd, Army of Thieves delights in the eccentric and dabbles with the flamboyant, whilst trying far too hard to remain linked to Zack Snyder’s zombie-themed film. When it’s not trying to cram skin-blistered zombie horror into random parts of the movie, Army of Thieves works superbly as a lightweight heist film a la Masterminds, Ocean’s 11 or The Italian Job, with panache and flourishes aplenty. It never takes itself too seriously, with an subtextual romance between Emmanuel’s Gwendoline and Schweighöfer’s Sebastian (we learn how he came to be known as Ludwig in Army of The Dead through a cute little childhood obsession) forming the umbrella emotional counterweight to the raucous action beats peppering the majority of the film. Schweighöfer isn’t a prolific director – his credits behind the camera aren’t well known to many outside his native Germany – but he showcases a deliberate comedic sensibility here with slick, well-paced fun and a clownish, almost cartoonish sense of the absurd slapstick making its presence known throughout. As I alluded to earlier, Schweighöfer’s role in Army Of The Dead felt out of place within that far more serious horror flick, as the comedy relief too iniquitous and grating, but given time to flesh out his character in Thieves, the actor acquits himself brilliantly both behind and in front of the camera.
Written by John Wick franchise co-producer Shay Hatten, from a story by Hatten and Zack Snyder, Army of Thieves is a jarring – in a good way – change of pace from Snyder’s grittier, focus-heavy Army of the Dead, to the point that even a final linking scene, starring Dave Bautista and Ana de la Reguera, reprising a moment from Snyder’s film, being jammed into the movie prior to the closing credits feels so utterly aesthetically opposite to the previous two hours it almost removes you completely from the experience. Suffice to say Snyder and Schweighöfer have two completely different visual styles, and placing Snyder-shot footage in this movie was a really bad decision. I’m loathe to suggest it, but had Army of Thieves been a completely stand-alone film, with no links whatsoever to the Snyder established zombie franchise, I think the film would have been a near instant hit. Unfortunately perhaps, the fact that it is linked to Army of The Dead does it a disservice, which says more about Snyder’s overall vision than it does Schweighöfer’s showcase work in this. The film arguably trips up on subgenre tropes a little too much; there’s a lot of Fast & Furious “inside the engine” stuff when Sebastian is cracking each safe, and the overhyped credits and slick character title design leans too heavily into more mainstream action contrasted against the European backdrop of this film’s aesthetic.
Led by Schweighöfer’s wide-eyed performance as the overly earnest Sebastian, the film works well as a platform for the talent of Nathalie Emmanuel, whose screen time in Game of Thrones and the respective Fast & Furious film appearances has been largely limited to supporting roles buried by larger leads – this is the first film I’ve seen her in where she’s had to shoulder a lead performance, and I think she angled the tone and wit of the film and her character, the supposedly hard-bitten Gwen, brilliantly. It’s not a dramatic stretch, for sure, but she gamely sheds starry inhibitions to dress in a number of wild outfits that would make Lady Gaga envious and offer a softer side of her typically aloof screen presence. Stuart Martin, who looks astonishingly like a young Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine, steals every scene he’s in as the wild, arrogant, handsome beefcake Brad Cage (real name, Alexis), Guz Khan has a grand time as the fast-talking Brit getaway driver Rolf, while Ruby O Fee (Polar, Asphalt Burning) is charming as the gum-chewing computer hacker who helps them get inside all the banking establishments these vaults are secreted away in.
Speaking of vaults, had Army of Thieves changed its title to “Life of A Safe” I’d have hardly been surprised. The vaults in play here are treated as near supernatural conquests, Everest-level complexity and mythical criminal underworld focus, themselves almost living, breathing characters in the film as well. These behemoth props look like ancient Victorian-era structures, bespoke safes with uber-complex unlocking mechanisms that the film intimates Sebastian can “see” in his minds eye, enabling him to crack them with virtually no discernible trouble – despite the tension he exhibits. The film tackles three separate vaults – Rheingold, Valkyrie and Siegfried, named after the four operas composed by Wagner, with Gotterdammerung, the fourth and most difficult safe to crack, forming the central premise in Army of The Dead – and each is accompanied by increasingly difficult settings in which to penetrate, making the ante-upping plot devices only more and more absurd as the film progresses. In spite of rising disbelief, Army of Thieves keeps its heart well and truly on its sleeve, honouring both the heist subgenre and the simplistic romantic-comedy elements as it weaves a fun, engaging and exuberant continental lark for willing audiences.
In the end, though, the plot is engaging if recycled, the characters all charmingly one-note, the score (by Hans Zimmer and Zimmer protégé Steve Mazzaro) is engaging and exciting, and the heist action just wild enough to thrill without going too far over the top. It’s entirely silly, wholeheartedly daffy and thunderously energetic, despite the zombie-added moments that jar against the more lightweight fare on offer (seriously though, the admittedly brief moments of zombie nightmares Sebastian exhibits don’t do much for the story Schweighöfer is trying to tell us here, instead serving as desolate reminders that Army of Thieves is beholden to a grander – and flawed – vision) and I can’t help but wonder if this film’s success on Netflix will propel the director to take on more big-budget Hollywood projects. He’s an exciting and distinct talent behind the camera, for sure, and Snyder has definitely unearthed a filmmaker of exceptional prospects. Army of Thieves won’t win many awards but it’s a hell of a fun ride, a great example of the heist genre, and a far better film than the one that spawned it. Hugely recommended.