Army of Thieves–Zombie-heist prequel arrives as an odd head scratcher

Review by C.J. Bunce

Just when you think there may be some hope for a Zack Snyder property, here we are again with another head scratcher.  The movie that gave us hope was the trippy, funny, quirky Army of the Dead, a zombie movie with the gore of the genre, but with the light tonal notes of Shaun of the Dead.  In short it was a worthy entry into the zombie horror genre, if on the more accessible, mainstream side (check out my review here).  The new spin-off film, Army of Thieves, just landed on Netflix, and it is a prequel, but a prequel probably nobody asked for.  It might make you think Snyder & Co. longs to have the C.V. of J.J. Abrams (see the Cloverleaf films) or M. Night Shyamalan (see the Unbreakable trilogy).  Imagine taking the most obscure–the least likely–character from an action film, and then giving him a sweet, heart-warming, dramatic origin story with romance, and have the actor that played the character direct it.  I can’t think anyone would select German actor Matthias Schweighöfer’s safecracker as the character that warranted a spin-off from Army of the Dead, but there it is.  And you can watch it right now on Netflix.

Snyder’s wife, producer Deborah Snyder, referred to Army of Thieves as basically The Italian Job with zombies.  It’s really nothing like that, and in fact it would be a shame to mention it in the same breath with the likes of better heist films like The Italian Job, The Bank Job, the Pink Panther movies, Baby Driver, Ant-Man, Sneakers, etc.  What is Army of Thieves then?  To get there you need to think in terms of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  Yes, Hugo.  Also, Steven Spielberg’s adventure film The Adventures of Tintin.  And Daniel Craig’s James Bond.  And yet it’s none of these.

Hugo comes to mind because of the fantasy backstory of the four safes that a safecracker extraordinaire named Sebastian desires to have a crack at breaking (Schweighöfer’s character changes his name to Dieter in this film in contemplation of the name he uses in Army of the Dead).  A safe maker named Wagner made four unbreachable safes decades ago, and designed them and named them after the four parts of Richard Wagner’s (no relation) epic fantasy opera The Ring of the Nibelung (the famous Ring cycle).  The magic happens as Sebastian and a team of oddballs (none of which seems to have any relevant skills) take on breaking into the location of each safe where Sebastian can work his skills.  We go inside the safes themselves and follow all the components as they work musically in symphony until the door clicks open.  It has a steampunk spirit.

The Tintin and Daniel Craig angle comes into play because the casting here looks like the players were intentionally tapped to conjure other actors.  The team member who is the Hitter (all the players also correspond to the much more exciting series Leverage) looks very much like Hugh Jackman.  Schweighöfer is a mix of a younger Craig and an older Tintin.  His character is the opposite of James Bond–he’s nervous, he’s excitable, he’s even silly–something like Craig in Road to Perdition, but a complete Boy Scout.  Then there are the exotic locations where the safes are held.  The added, shoe-horned twist is the world is on the brink of a zombie apocalypse, which everyone but Sebastian is taking in stride.  The zombie scenes are so slight that they muddle and confuse the film’s efforts at having some kind of standalone existence.

John Wick movie series writer Shay Hatten’s script is thin and that is the major dilemma with the film.  He kinda sorta tries to parody heist films in his first heist scene, but it falls flat.  He wedges into the plot an unrequited romance between Schweighöfer and co-star Nathalie Emmanuel (Furious 7, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance), but they have no chemistry and get no chance at trying to have some chemistry.  Ultimately the story is a romance, but the audience of Army of Thieves–without the benefit of seeing Army of the Dead first–has no idea this is a tragedy where the outcome of one of the leads is never known and the other’s is bleak.  What was anyone thinking, and how did this script get green-lighted?  It’s a shame, because Schweighöfer has potential as both an actor and a director.  The production design is attractive, the clothes look good, you’ll lose track of Emmanuel’s hair changes, and the cinematography ticks all the boxes, although Schweighöfer fails to take full advantage of Wagner’s rousing music from the Ring cycle where it could have really amplified the action sequences and safecracking.

Unfortunately Army of Thieves, for its heart and good intentions, lacks the intrigue and action necessary for a movie billed as a heist picture.  It really wants to be Baby Driver, but it lacks the style–and everything else.  Not every movie needs to belong in a specific category, of course, and this is not a bad movie (nowhere near as bad as say, Man of Steel), just one that may make you fall asleep once or twice before you make it to the end.

Army of Thieves is now streaming on Netflix.

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