Quickly following Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, Netflix continues to place its faith in the director’s creative vision. Enter Army of Thieves, a prequel based on one of the standout characters from the zombie film, master safecracker Dieter.
Matthias Schweighöfer directs and stars alongside Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones), Ruby O. Fee (The Invisibles), Stuart Martin (Medici), and Guz Khan (Man Like Mobeen). The film takes place not too far into the past, set right after the zombie outbreak in Las Vegas. Interestingly, the film’s premise does not define itself by the zombie apocalypse and remains focused. Before the zombie heist of Army of the Dead, there was a legendary heist in Europe. Before Ludwig Dieter, there was Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert.
Army of Thieves sets the tone for this awkward character’s humble beginnings as an average bank teller in Germany. The safecracker wasn’t always an international criminal, but a humble YouTuber nerd of all things puzzles and locks. His interests especially include the famous safe designer Hans Wagner. Wagner’s legendary safes, the mythology behind the puzzles, and even the very designer’s own demise enthrall Sebastian to no end. This obsession leads him to an underground safecracking competition and eventually a grand quest.
The quest? To pull off the ultimate heist in a matter of four days: crack into three of Wagner’s four historically famous safes across Europe. With a team of thieves he is a complete stranger to. The scene is set and the impossible mission is in play. What follows is a playful and stylistic action-adventure that packs itself with charm and even romcom quirks.
Sincerely, Army of the Dead did not enamor me. Snyder’s excess and lack of focus with its third act made it less appealing for me. As a result, my low expectations for Army of Thieves were surprisingly exceeded. Schweighöfer’s directorial style piqued my interest and the genre subversions kept me engaged. The first act mercilessly hooks you, with an effortlessly endearing lead. Accompanied is his cunning supporting lead in Emmanuel’s master thief, Gwendoline. Ruby O. Fee’s gal in the chair Korina also lends herself as a standout of the ensemble.
The conniving team’s dynamic is unapologetically formulaic and explores meta approaches to spy movie tropes. Army of Thieves is not afraid to be self-aware and play around with its story. The quippy visuals are accompanied by a quirky score more unique than your typical Netflix genre flick. Schweighöfer’s direction and performance show deep care for this character as well as the universe in which he lives.
Regrettably, the film struggles to grapple with the delightful style it so quickly established. The stakes rise, but the execution of the action is dizzying at times. There is a particular scene where the fight choreography is precisely done but is undercut by the excessive speed ramping effects. There is a seeming lack of faith in the film’s initial style and the second act feels insecure. The script also stumbles to find its purpose once again, only coming in for respite at the end.
Fortunately, Emmanuel and Schweighöfer’s chemistry keeps you glued to the screen. Their dynamic is reminiscent of romantic comedies, and the tropes in the film make it stand out for me. It’s the way their story parallels the mythology discussed throughout the film that sticks the landing as a fun movie. Army of Thieves is one of those few prequels that adds substantial emotional depth to a known character, and it succeeds. Snyder’s Army universe is building up to be an extremely interesting world overflowing with lore. This mythos element gave this film a lovely Tomb Raider meets international heist flick that I personally enjoyed. – Ileana Meléndez
Army of Thieves is streaming now on Netflix!