Synopsis: A mysterious woman recruits bank teller Ludwig Dieter to lead a group of aspiring thieves on a top-secret heist during the early stages of the zombie apocalypse.
Stars: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ruby O. Fee, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan, Jonathan Cohen, Noémie Nakai
Director: Matthias Schweighöfer
Running Length: 127 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Stop right there, dear reader. We cannot proceed any further into this review of the new Netflix film Army of Thieves, a prequel/spinoff to director Zack Snyder’s May release Army of the Dead without entering the danger zone of spoiler territory. Only go forth if you don’t mind knowing some small details about the earlier film which factor into this, even though seeing Army of the Dead isn’t a requirement to enjoy this slippery little nugget of a heist film. You sure you’re ready? For real and true? Ok…here we go.
I, for one, was super surprised to see this movie come through the pipeline for production so soon after the release of the well-received original film that it has spun-off from. True, the pandemic did delay the release of Army of the Dead (AOD from now on) so it was in the can for a time before it began streaming but from the sound of it Snyder and his team had the percolations of expanding their original idea into something larger while working on that first film. It’s also true that AOD was itself its own semi adjacent spinoff from Snyder’s 2004 reimaging/remake of George A. Romero 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, so Army of Thieves (AOT) is just widening that world-build further. It’s still in its infancy but if AOT is any indication of what’s to come, Snyder’s zombieverse might just have found a fun little niche in a genre that had been growing low on energy for some time.
So now we get to the obvious. AOT is all about Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) the charismatic safecracker that was one of the crew brought in by Dave Bautista’s character in AOD to help break into an impenetrable safe and haul out mounds of cash. As far as we know, Dieter gave his life for the cause (hey, it’s the movies…anything can happen unless we see a body decomposing, right?) so watching AOT to begin with is a bit of a strange beast. We know how the story is going to end for Dieter so why invest an additional two hours into an origin story that links up with a movie we’ve already seen? It’s not like a Marvel film where we go back and see how Spider Man got his senses or Thor got his hammer. In fact, with the zombie apocalypse beginning to swell in the background in the latter half of this film, knowing that quite a lot of these characters will be goners almost balances some of the joy/excitement created (and it does!) with some melancholy.
I wouldn’t have exactly called Dieter a breakout character from AOD, but I would say that Schweighöfer made a memorable impression, something that I was reminded of as AOT starts featuring the actor as Dieter laying out the history of famous safe maker and his four masterworks. Creatively inspired by Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, these were notoriously impossible mini-fortresses to break into and the designer himself used one as his tomb. We already know that the last and most impressive features heavily into AOD, so AOT focuses on Dieter’s recruitment by international criminal Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel, F9: The Fast Saga) to rob the other three scattered throughout Europe. With help from muscle Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and tech expert Korina (Ruby O. Fee), this merry band of thieves must learn to trust one another and avoid capture by determined officer Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen).
It was refreshing to see this spinoff to a film that was packed to the skulls with zombies be relatively walking dead-less and instead take on the qualities of a heist film in the vein of Oceans 11 or The Italian Job. It’s a little more by-the-numbers than either of those films and misses some of the clever spark which gave the productions a leg up but it’s definitely not lacking in good will or energy to please. Schweighöfer pulls double duty playing the lead and directing the film, demonstrating easy balance of those two pivotal roles without letting either slide. I could have done with some trimming of several sequences where Dieter is attempting to open a safe and we see the inner workings of the mechanism, the gears moving and tumblers falling into place. Once is interesting to establish but after minutes have gone by it just looks like a Windows 98 screensaver.
If AOT winds up feeling conventional in structure (it’s a bank heist movie, don’t ask it to be something more) the viewer can appreciate that it was carried off with some style. Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro’s score adds a nice zip and Bernhard Jasper’s cinematography is commendable for giving us the coverage we need to understand what’s going on while stoking our desire for international travel. There’s a new film set after AOD, Planet of the Dead, that has been announced and Schweighöfer is in the cast so perhaps this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Dieter and that’s OK by me. There’s enough interest created in Snyder’s first expansion of his zombieverse to make me want to see more.