October 30, 2021

Review: More Safes, Less Zombies is a Good Thing for “Army of Thieves”

Yesterday, Netflix dropped Army of Thieves, a heist movie that serves as a loosely-connected prequel to Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, with very little fanfare…or promotion at all. In fact, when I visited the site to watch it, I couldn’t find it anywhere on Netflix’s homepage — this is a real shame, because I really liked Army of Thieves, and it definitely won’t get the attention it deserves.

Following safecracker Ludwig Dieter (played by Matthias Schweighöfer in Army of the Dead), the prequel explores Dieter’s mundane life before his life of crime. Going by his real name of Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert, Dieter is recruited into a gang of thieves by Gwendoline Starr (Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel), who is leading a heist to break into a series of semi-mythical vaults, all created by legendary safe designer Hans Wagner.

Usually, I’m not in favor of giving the comic relief of a successful film their own story, because it usually turns into a cash grab, but Army of Thieves mercifully defies these expectations by giving us an origin story that we didn’t necessarily need, but it’s nice to get to know the characters and this world a little bit more. Plus, not only does Schweighöfer star, but he also directed and produced the film, a true feat given the scale of the production, especially once the heist gets going.

The film is very well-shot, perhaps not so much as it would be under Snyder’s direction, but the cinematography is excellent regardless, especially during the heist sequences and we get to see the interior of the vaults as Dieter is doing his safecracking job. That being said, I didn’t understand how safecracking worked before, and I still don’t understand it now.

Army of Thieves continues the 21st century tradition of forcing meta commentary on its genre, this time (naturally) about heist movies. Before their first job, Gwen’s team discusses the tropes of heist movies and mapping it out before they go in, before proclaiming that nothing like that is going to happen here, because “this is real life!” Army of Thieves is certainly not immune to those tropes, though, but it manages to be exciting and fresh regardless.

One thing I’ve always liked about heist movies is the moral ambiguity of it all. Morally, what our central group of thieves is doing is wrong, but there’s no doubt about who we (as the audience) is supposed to be rooting for. Army of Thieves has its antagonists, this time Interpol agents who have been searching for Gwen’s team for years, and I’ve come to realize that “villainous” figures are needed for a heist movie in order for it to have any stakes. It’s very clear from the get-go how everything is going to turn out, and because of that the Interpol agents are very much secondary to the story.

It doesn’t add too much to the world of Army of the Dead (forget DC — this is the real SnyderVerse), but it acts as a fun companion piece, showing how the larger world reacted to the emerging news of the “zombie apocalypse” in Las Vegas. Archetypal and awkward but likable characters, hard action and a puzzlingly useless R-rating are what make up Army of Thieves, a bout of harmless fun in this brand-new, ever-expanding universe. Netflix may have tried to bury it, but I very much hope it gets the recognition it deserves. 
[Grade: A-]

Director: Matthias Schweighöfer

Writer: Shay Hatten

Starring: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ruby O. Fee, Stuart Martin
Rated: R for language
Available: Netflix
Fun Fact: While Snyder didn’t direct this film, he did serve as a producer.

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