A film review by Craig J. Koban November 9, 2021


2021, R, 128 mins.

Matthias Schweighöfer as Ludwig Dieter  /  Nathalie Emmanuel as Gwendoline  /  Ruby O. Fee as Korina  /  Stuart Martin as Brad Cage  /  Guz Khan as Rolph  /  Jonathan Cohen as Delacroix  /  Noémie Nakai as Beatrix

Directed by Matthias Schweighöfer  /  Written by Shay Hatten, based on characters created by Zack Snyder 


If you're going into Netflix's newest heist comedy thriller ARMY OF THIEVES asking yourself "Why does this title sound so awfully familiar?" then, don't worry, because you won't be alone.  

This is actually a prequel film to the Zack Snyder zombie apocalypse heist thriller ARMY OF THE DEAD from a few months back, which, as far as my knowledge of cinema history goes, represents the first time that a film and its prequel have been released in the same year and just six months apart.  

ARMY OF THIEVES is an oddity, to say the least, seeing that the only real connective tissue that it has with ARMY OF THE DEAD is that (a) it's set in the same world, (b) they both involve heists, and (c) they contain one of the same characters in offbeat safecracker Ludwig Dieter.  This prequel is not another zombie plagued effort (although it references the zombie apocalypse, more on that in a bit), which may disappoint appreciators of Snyder's film.  Despite that, though, I found ARMY OF THIEVES to be a relatively solid and a well oiled lead-in to its more walking dead-plagued sequel.  It abandons its focus on the end of days scenario and instead functions and exists primarily as a breezy heist flick.  For the most part, the film goes down quite smoothly. 

This makes ARMY OF THIEVES  a very different type of compelling prequel in many respects.  Snyder initially offered up a spiritual sequel to his 2004 DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, but hinted that more stories were to come in this ARMY Netflix cinematic universe, with ARMY OF THIEVES being the first product of said promise.  And how many prequel films have ever existed that were so fundamentally different than what's come before, but nevertheless have ties to the same world?  Not many, by my estimation.  ARMY OF THE DEAD was a pure splatterhouse horror thriller (with, yes, caper elements), but its prequel here is more of a heist film cross morphed with a romcom that just so happens to occur in the same world where the dead walk the earth.  Granted, the zombie apocalypse has only hit key areas of the U.S., leaving this film's European locales intriguingly on the sidelines looking at America with inquisitive spectator eyes.  It should also be noted that Snyder isn't in the director's chair here, but rather Dieter himself in star Matthias Schweighofer, who manages to have great fun in both re-visiting his ARMY OF THE DEAD role while also showing some genuinely creative chops as the filmmaking quarterback of it all. 

If anything, ARMY OF THIEVES is an origin film, of sorts, explaining who Ludwig is, where he came from, and how he eventually got caught up with all of the zombie mayhem of ARMY OF THE DEAD.  When we meet Luwig here it's approximately six years before the events of Snyder's film and this man is leading a mostly lackluster and dull life as a banker by day and obsessive safecracking historian by night.  He's also known as Sebastian at first here (far too complicated for me to get into the name change, so for the purposes of this review I'll just refer to him as Dieter), and his dream is to make his safecracking YouTube page a rousing social media success so he can finally free himself from his soul crushing day job.  There's one large problem: no one watches his videos...like, no one.  Well, scratch that...there's one that does, a criminal named Gwendoline (GAME OF THRONES and FAST AND FURIOUS' lovely Nathalie Emmanuel), who's mightily impressed with Dieter's intimate knowledge of safes, safe history, and how to crack them.  It seems that Gwendoline has amassed an A-team of fellow crooks in hopes of pulling off the mother of all heists.  She wants to infiltrate and break into three legendarily impossible to crack safes created by mastermind Hans Wagner, which in turn all pay homage to the music of German composer Richard Wagner.   



And - wouldn't you know it! - Dieter has made these safes his life's work and ultimate pursuit, so he enthusiastically joins the ranks of Gwendoline's team - including muscle man Brad (Stuart Martin), the logistics queen Korina (Ruby O. Fee) and the getaway car driver in Rolph (Guz Khan).  Gwendoline feels confident that Dieter is the right final piece to her crew puzzle to get into all three of these borderline uncrackable vaults, and promises of wealth and fame are given to Dieter, but he seems more compelled to help for the bragging rights of saying that he was the one that opened these safes.  Early on, this team seems  tightly knit and achieves early successes, but divisions - as they always seem to - begin to appear between the members, not to mention that a ruthlessly determined Interpol agent, Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), is willing to do just about anything to stop Gwendoline and her squad by using an any means necessary approach.  Complicating things immensely is that the socially awkward Dieter is getting awfully sweet on the awfully easy on the eyes Gwendoline as their shared mission progresses. 

Okay, for starters, let's be clear here:  ARMY OF THIEVES is not infested with zombies.  Well...sort of not.  They're referenced in the film during news broadcasts, not to mention that Dieter has weird nightmares of the apocalypse in America that does feature attacking zombies, which serves to be quite cryptic of anyone that's seen ARMY OF THE DEAD.  Beyond that, ARMY OF THIEVES is pretty zombie-free, but these creatures - and their impact on the U.S. - do indeed cast a shadow over this prequel and the world in general (kind of like, for example, how we observed the early days of COVID-19 in China from afar).  The real goal of ARMY OF THIEVES is to explore the rise of Dieter as a master safe cracker with no equal, and part of the pleasure of this film is exploring all of his uniquely peculiar eccentricities.  Schweighofer provided much needed comedy relief as his high pitched screaming and scardey cat Dieter in the last film, who was definitely not cut from the same brawny action hero cloth as the other members of the ARMY OF THE DEAD team.  The character here is just as charmingly offbeat as he was beforehand, and most of the film's humor is derived from his fish out of water, trial by fire acclimation into Gwendoline's criminal empire.  Considering all of the dominant alpha male leading men that usually dominate these types of genre efforts, I appreciate that this heist film is about a tremendously gifted in his craft, but in way over his head dweeb like Dieter; he becomes an easy figure of rooting interest here. 

And let's not forget that the star also directs here, and Schweighofer seems as equally adept behind the camera with making ARMY OF THIEVES coast by with solid momentum (even though its two hour plus runtime sometimes seems a bit unearned).  He crafts a deliriously weird and funny sequence early on that shows his German safecracking nerd invited to participate in an...underground safecracking tournament.  Of course, we discover that it was all an elaborate test for him so that Gwendoline can see if he had the right stuff to be on the squad, but the scene itself is an absurd highlight, which pits Dieter racing against ticking time clocks (literally) and other fellow safecracking contestants to open up ridiculous complex safes, and all while a massive crowd cheers them on (it's like a fight club...but with safes).  Aligned with this and on a bit more of a serious side is how much investment Schweighofer places on the deeply rooted love that Dieter has for all things safe manufacturing and cracking.  The Wagner safes are no mere safes; they all have a history and a profoundly intricate craftsmanship all their own that makes breaking into each one in Prague, Paris, and Switzerland all so compellingly varied (of course, the real masterpiece is the Gotterdammerung in Las Vegas, which, obviously enough, figures into his future in ARMY OF THE DEAD).  I liked how Schweighofer shows Dieter's unbridled, childlike awe of these nearly impenetrable structures and how his whole methodology and process for cracking them is like a finely orchestrated cerebral ballet that only he knows the moves for.  

Not all of ARMY OF THIEVES is great fun, though.  ARMY OF THE DEAD suffered from bloat at nearly two and a half hours, and ARMY OF THIEVES is also just as unforgivably long at 130 minutes (it runs out of steam as it hurdles towards the finish line and tries to draw some connective tissue with Snyder's film).  That, and when all is said and done, ARMY OF THIEVES still manages to wallow in ample genre formulas that we've seen so many countless times before (we get gang members forming factions, obligatory double crosses, routine love triangle elements between members, the planning/execution montages...and so on and so on.  Even though the romantic arc between Dieter and Gwendoline follows a fairly preordained path, both Emmanuel and Schweighofer are quite charming on screen together and make for effective personality foils (she's calculating and confident, whereas Dieter is  bumbling and clumsy).  Also, if you loved the undead carnage of ARMY OF THE DEAD, then you might be supremely disappointed in the bait-and-switch approach here from this very different prequel.  

Having said that, the fact that this prequel is so different is what made it ultimately appealing to me.  ARMY OF THIEVES is slickly and stylishly made, playfully hysterical in the right parts and dosages, well acted, and gets ample mileage out of its gorgeous European locales.  Plus, the central safe cracking heist elements contained within are quite a bit more elaborately thoughtful than I was expecting.  And I liked Dieter as a character...again.  He's a wimp with a big heart that just so happens to be an unparalleled safe genius and scholar (but, yes, Danny Ocean he isn't!).  And he's also, deep down, a romantic at heart for his trade, which makes ARMY OF THIEVES strangely endearing as an unpretentiously entertaining caper flick with a bit more soul than I was expecting going in. 

  H O M E