Army of Thieves
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I was not a fan of 2021's Army of the Dead. It's actually fair to say that I'm not a fan of Zack Snyder's entire oeuvre, finding him to be a hack director with little in the way of actual talent. I get he has his defenders, that there are fans for the over-blown, washed-out, hyper-masculine, Ayn Rand-ian style of story he likes to take. I am not one of them. Army of the Dead was a mess, the kind of zombie film a twelve year old hopped up on Mt. Dew and Pixie Sticks would devise. But then, what you would expect from the director of 2004's Dawn of the Dead.
Released the same year as Army of the Dead there was also it's prequel / spin-off, Army of Thieves. The creation and devising of this film is a real curiosity. It's predicated not only on the idea that the audience who saw Army of the Dead would want to explore more aspects of the world, from the perspective of one of the side characters from that film, but also that they would want a film with no actual zombies in it. I'm not sure who was the intended audience for this film but it can't have a lot of crossover with those that actually enjoyed Army of the Dead, especially since Zack Snyder didn't direct this one.
And yet, here's the thing: Army of Thieves is actually pretty good. Stripped of the zombies, the over-blown film making, all the Zack Snyder-ness at the center of the first film, this prequel gives us everything the first film should have managed: a pretty solid heist film with a crew of affable characters. If Army of the Dead could have at least delivered that it would have been ten times better than it was. Army of Thieves manages it with casual grace.
The film focuses on Ludwig Dieter before he was Ludwig Dieter. First he was Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert (Matthias Schweighofer), a teller at a bank with ambitions to be more. He runs a YouTube channel dedicated to safe cracking, but which gets 0 views for every video he posts. One view, his first view, does finally get him some attention, as well as an invite to a hidden club to prove his mettle. Once there, Sebastian is dropped into a competition to see who can be the best, first, and fastest safe cracker from an elite group. Naturally, it's Sebastian.
Soon Sebastian meets the person that gave him the invite, Gwendoline Starr (Nathalie Emmanuel), and she has an offer for him. She wants his help in cracking three safes by legendary locksmith Hans Wagner. These three safes, crafted with exquisite quality, are built around the theme of the "Gotterdammerung", the musical compositions of Richard Wagner which tell the tale of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. The safes are impressive, and few have the skill to crack them. The team -- Sebastian and Gwen, along with hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), muscle Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), and driver Rolph 9Guz Khan) -- have a week before all three safes are decommissioned, making their cracking impossible. Sebastian, naturally joins the crew. It's the chance of a lifetime, one that Sebastian could never pass up.
In concept I really liked this film. The first film was a mess, yes, but it did have some enjoyable parts and most of those were provided by Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert's Ludwig Dieter. While (spoilers) Dieter dies in that film, it's not hard to make a prequel to bring him back and explore his character further (they're also, somehow, bringing him back for the sequel which seems weirder). If any character from that film was worth exploring in great depth and content it was Ludwig, and this film finds the perfect way to do that: having him crack more safes.
I will note, though, that this is weird that this is the prequel to a zombie film and there are no actual zombies. Yes, there are occasional new reports that play in the background talking about the zombie infestation in Los Vegas (the setting of the first film), and there's more than one dream sequels that features zombies. Outside of those small instances (which feel tacked on to ties this movie to the first film), there's no real connection to the zombies at all. In fact, despite the news reels playing, no one in this film seems concerned that zombies exist at all. That seems like it should be a big deal... but it isn't.
Instead we get a solid caper film that ignores basically everything that happened in the first film. This works to the movie's benefit as it can stay focused and on task. We meet the criminals, we spends some time enjoying their characters, and then we get into the meat of it with three well-planned back-to-back-to-back capers. They're slick, they're well organized, and they move with precision. But, better yet, they're fun. In just three little capers this film manages to have more fun with its concept that Army of the Dead was ever able to produce across it's whole run time.
What I think is more impressive is that the film makes safe cracking look interesting. It's too easy for a show or film to have someone put their ear up to a safe, roll the dial a bit, and then hear some tumblers click and open the safe. That's the standard way of doing it. Army of Thieves, though, moves the camera into the safe, showing up all the gears and tumblers and everything else inside. These are intricate, detailed safes that, while obvious CGI on the inside, feel tactile and lived in. It makes the safe cracking interesting as you see how the gears line up and feel the tension as parts move in ways Sebastian doesn't want. It's, frankly, thrilling. I didn't know a movie could do that for safe cracking, but this one does handily.
And because it's focused we can get a feel for its leads and enjoy their company. Sebastian is already a lived in character and Schweighofer. Nathalie Emmanuel, of Game of Thrones fame, gets to have fun being a bas-ass action star in a few places but she also shows charismatic and emotional range. She's a great lead to play off of Schweighofer's Sebastian. And I really enjoyed Ruby O. Fee's Korina as she's played with a fun and bemused sparkle. This is the true core team for the heists and they're enjoyable to watch.
Army of Thieves isn't as big, as broad, or as showy as Army of the Dead, but it's also not anywhere near as messy. It's a tight and focused heist film that delivers everything you want from a good caper. I didn't think anything good could come out of he trashy Army of the Dead. I was wrong.