Review: A Zombie-ish Prequel, Army of Thieves Sets Up a Massive Safe Heist But Fails to Build Character
For those of you who can remember all the way back to May 2021, perhaps you caught director Zack Snyder’s latest zombie opus, Army of the Dead, in which a small army of humans must sneak into a zombie-infested Las Vegas, break into an underground vault, and grab a small fortune on behalf of a businessman who may have other interests at play during the heist. Perhaps the least capable of the group as a fighter—but most essential to the overall scheme—is a master safecracker named Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), who was primarily used as comedic relief but whose skills became vital when breaking into what was said to be the toughest safe to crack in the world.[caption id="attachment_99909" align="aligncenter" width="4000"] Image credit Stanislav Honzik. Courtesy of Netflix[/caption]
Shot almost immediately after Army of the Dead was completed, Army of Thieves is a prequel centering on the Dieter character, directed by the actor who plays him with a story by Snyder and screenwriter Shay Hatten, detailing the criminal road the character took throughout Europe in the weeks leading up to Army of the Dead. Got it? Good, now explain it to me because I’m confused.
Dieter begins the film as a mild-mannered bank teller being verbally abused on a daily basis by customers. But at home, he makes safecracking tutorial videos for YouTube that no one watches, until one day he posts a story on a series of intricately designed safes, known as the Ring Cycle (based on the music drama by Wagner, which also happens to be the last name of the safes’ designer). The video attracts the attention of master thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), who is planning a heist of the four safes (each named after one of the Ring Cycle’s segments—the Rhinegold, the Valkyrie, the Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods, which happens to be the Vegas safe), in order of difficulty. Dieter believes he’s up to the task once he can get past the idea of actually committing a crime for the first time in his life.
Gwendoline introduces him to her small crew—hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), ridiculous bad boy Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), and getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan)—and they throw the unsuspecting safecracker in the deep end with very little information about how the overall heists will go outside of his part in them (they say they don’t want to distract him with unnecessary details, which seems wise considering how easily distracted he gets at times). This is actually Schweighöfer’s fifth feature as a director, and his skills behind the camera are impressive. He keeps things moving and has a decent sense of pacing, timing and tension-building. Each safe is in a different city in Europe, so the film jumps from location to location, and with each job Dieter grows more confident and cocky; he also believes that his relationship with Gwendoline is growing closer, even though he knows virtually nothing about her going into this.
Turning the heat up on this five-person crew are Interpol agents, led by Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) and Beatrix (Noémie Nakai), who are both hot on the robbers’ trail but also a few steps behind. In other words, these characters are simply here to cut to when we need a break in the action since they pose no real threat to the team. The zombie apocalypse is just beginning to simmer in the states, and we catch glimpses of the chaos in Vegas, just to remind us where Dieter’s life is headed sooner than he realizes. The only purposes the zombies hold in Dieter’s world at this point is to act as a distraction to the bank jobs the crew is committing.
While I appreciated the energy of Army of Thieves—and Schweighöfer is a nerdy force that has genuinely grown on me across these two movies—most of the actors (excluding Emmanuel, who has learned to hold her own in the Fast & Furious franchise and “Game of Thrones”) are giving fairly generic, action-movie performances, trying to see who’s the toughest with little regard for the success of the mission. I enjoy a good heist movie, and the emphasis on cracking these highly elaborate safes is a great twist on the traditional heist storyline. I just wish the filmmakers had taken more time letting us know these characters a bit more, and with a running time of slightly more than two hours, it’s not like the minutes aren’t there to do it.
It should probably come as no surprise that Snyder and company are currently shooting episodes of an Army of the Dead series for 2022 that covers the early days of the Vegas zombie outbreak and will feature many of the characters from the original film (fingers crossed on Dieter popping in as well), so this universe isn’t going anywhere any time soon. I’m good with that for now, but Snyder has a habit of driving things we love into the ground through overexposure, so we can only hope that he knows when to quit this storyline.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ith2WetKXlg
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.