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‘Army of Thieves’ Review: Delightful ‘Army of the Dead’ Prequel Swaps Zombie Chills for Heist Thrills

Matthias Schweighöfer's addition to the growing franchise does best when it's playing to its own strengths: zippy heist action and the winsome charm of the director and star himself.

ARMY OF THIEVES (L to R) Guz Khan as ROLF, Matthias Schweighöfer as LUDWIG DIETER, Stuart Martin as BRAD CAGE in ARMY OF THIEVES. Photo Credit: Stanislav Honzik/Netflix © 2021

“Army of Thieves”

Stanislav Honzik

Only five months old, Zack Snyder’s zombie heist thriller and Netflix hit “Army of the Dead” has already inspired its own cinematic resurrections. Franchise plans include more films, as well as TV series, proving it’s never too early to bring some of its brightest stars back from the dead. Set six years before “Army of the Dead,” Matthias Schweighöfer’s darling “Army of Thieves” pulls back from the zombie stuff to play up some of the other juicy elements of Snyder’s film: more zippy heist action and the winsome charm of “Dead” safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Schweighöfer himself).

First things first: This iteration of Dieter is a bit different than the one German actor and director Schweighöfer presented in Snyder’s film. He’s still a natty dresser, a chatty conversationalist, and a damn good safecracker, but “Army of Thieves” picks up just before he turned those skills toward a life of crime. Oh, and his name is actually Sebastian, another twist that Snyder and Shay Hatten’s screenplay happily explains away over its protracted 127-minute running time.

Dieter AKA Sebastian first appears by way of a YouTube video. His expressive, open face pops on a computer screen during the film’s opening minutes, all too eager to talk about his affection for safes (and cracking them). Sebastian has a story to tell his fans and his friends (though it soon becomes clear he doesn’t have many of either) about the late, great locksmith Hans Wagner, who built four safes — all crafted around Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle of operas, of course.

Army of Thieves

“Army of Thieves”

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Then the video is over, posted, and out in the world as Sebastian embarks on “another boring day.” He’s not kidding. Sebastian heads to the same café for the same breakfast, followed by a day’s work as a bank teller who faces constant screaming from customers as well as his boss. Then he heads home for a solitary evening. Every day, every night, until — Sebastian receives an alert. His video received a view, and even a comment! It asks him to put his safecracking skills to the test in what proves to be something like a safecracker’s fight club. He’s freaked out (the host dubs him “Mr. Nervous Guy”), but damn if he doesn’t win the whole thing.

That’s not all: Alluring jewelry thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) soon reveals herself to be not only a fan of Sebastian’s videos, but also the reason he was invited to the underground battle in the first place. She liked what she saw, and now she has another offer: Join her crack team of thieves to rob Wagner’s mystical, magical, operatic vaults. How could he possibly say no?

Schweighöfer’s film is set in the early days of the zombie apocalypse — during one of his bad workdays, Sebastian catches a news report about the spreading pandemic, though no one else really seems to care. (Sebastian does have some persistent nightmares, giving Schweighöfer the chance to show off his directorial chops when it comes to zombie action.) Gwendoline does, however, invoke it as a reason to do the heists now — people distracted by zombies is a rare window of opportunity. However, that’s not the case for the team’s eventual nemesis, hyped-up Interpol agent Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen).

The impending apocalypse gets back-burned early on, but that storytelling misstep is forgivable enough when there’s plenty of other fun elements in play. Happily, that’s what Snyder and Hatten’s script provides. There’s plenty of exposition, but the filmmaker employs a splashy, self-reflexive style that leans hard into the “it’s a movie!” of it all. He liberally pulls from all manner of other films, including “The Italian Job,” the “Ocean’s” franchise, and the “Fast and Furious” series. One second, we’re meeting the “real-life action hero” dude of the team (Stuart Martin as the hilariously named “Brad Cage”); the next, Gwendoline guides both the audience and Sebastian through a point-by-point plan that seems ripe for bad execution (it’s not, and it provides one of the film’s best gags).

“Army of the Dead” was built around a mashup premise — a zombie movie, but also a heist film! — but “Army of Thieves” is content to dig into its heist DNA over everything else (including, unfortunately, the rom-com sensibility it seeks between Sebastian and Gwendoline). That means unique, clever heists on a fast rotation, big twists, and major revelations, and some genuinely accomplished chase scenes (one that sees Schweighöfer evading the police on a bicycle is silly, serious, special, and fun — the film’s best qualities.)

The final act feels a bit too familiar, as does an ending that’s both a bid for another sequel and a far-flung jump to the action of “Army of the Dead.” No matter; consider it the cost of awkwardly retrofitted franchise filmmaking.

Grade: B-

“Army of Thieves” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, October 29.

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