What to Watch Verdict
'Army Of Thieves' gets back to basics and does the heist film right without any zombie distractions.
🏦 Matthias Schweighöfer works well both in front of and behind the camera
🏦 It's fun
🏦 Development is a focus
🏦 Can feel inconsequential knowing the fate
🏦 "Basics" is both its signature and inhibitor
🏦 Is "fun" enough
The looming question Matthias Schweighöfer’s Army Of Thieves has to answer is a single word: “Why?” Zack Snyder’s intention to expand his “Dead” universe after Army of the Dead introduced a rather dismal doomsday apocalypse in Las Vegas is known — but to do so with a heist prequel that ignores its zombie tie-ins?
Schweighöfer’s German safecracker, Ludwig Dieter, became a crowd favorite and that’s the energy that Army of Thieves carries throughout this ode to operatic symphonies, mechanical puzzles and a loner lockpicker’s quest to becoming a legend in his criminal field. It’s impractical at times because we know Dieter’s fate. Yet, Shay Hatten’s screenplay finds a way to engage thievery thrills alongside Dieter’s excitable outcast humor in a contained yet connective detour.
In prequel fashion, Army of Thieves introduces Dieter as a man — Sebastian "whats-his-name" to most — before becoming the legend. He’s working a dead-end job, running a YouTube channel with zero views on his instructional-slash-informative pickmaster videos and seeking excitement. Enter international thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel). She leaves Dieter his first comment, which leads to an underground safecracking competition that Dieter expectedly wins. Gwendoline invites Dieter to join her band of criminals for a three-safe heist to conquer master locksmith Hans Wagner’s (Christian Steyer) trio of “uncrackable” safes created to represent each opus of musician Richard Wagner’s legendary “Ring” cycle. It’s the challenge Dieter’s trained for his entire life, Interpol agents and impending zombie apocalypses be damned.
There are times when Army of Thieves feels overly zany since Hatten’s screenplay does its best to recognize and describe heist movie tropes out loud while also accentuating them. Interpol’s obsessive agent Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) berates his partner Beatrix (Noémie Nakai) when she dares point to Nevada’s zombie pandemic and why Interpol might care about Gwendoline’s crew at such a time. “Screw the zombies,” he fires. Delacroix’s seething outburst hammers home the film’s intentions to completely ignore Las Vegas and hop between European countries in search of impenetrable vaults based on Norse mythology. It’s a refreshing perspective that only unleashes zombies into Dieter’s dreams, as premonitions that mean nothing to the newbie bandit flopping around like an anxious fish out of water under lawbreaking conditions.
With so many fates sealed in Army of the Dead — including Dieter’s if you believe off-screen deaths count — dare I claim Schweighöfer and Hatten still find a reason to introduce a character whose story has already technically concluded?
Schweighöfer’s directorial style reflects Zack Snyder’s blueprints in Army of the Dead, but more energetic, akin to Baby Driver. Dieter’s quirkiness becomes the showcase between recalling the fabled texts each of Wagner’s vaults is modeled after while Gwendoline impatiently reminds him of the guards upstairs, or Schweighöfer’s high-pitched squeals in either celebration or utmost fear.
There’s a richness and sincerity to Dieter’s adoration of Wagner’s work, as the skittish safecracker caresses embossed dials while Gwendoline darts her eyes like she’s interrupted something private. Schweighöfer ensures that Army of Thieves voices purpose, as Dieter silently munches his lunchbox sandwich alone in the rain, pulling at the roots of a German boy’s impossible dreams that become a grand adventure backdropped by the tempo of steel mechanism clicks.
Ancillary characters can indeed feel a tad inconsequential given what we know in Army of the Dead, but there’s still the same sense of personality in each introduction. Ruby O. Fee stands out as the team’s hacker extraordinaire, Korina, with her no-bullshit attitude, especially as an ally to Emmanuel’s portrayal of a once rich girl rebelling against her family’s senseless glamour. Both arcs are better fleshed than drifter getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and his defining trait of — checks notes — loving sandwiches or the overall arc of Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), the self-professed action hero who modeled himself after blockbuster badasses like Nicholas Cage of Con Air fame. It’s all a bit surface value in terms of the script’s desire to focus so intently on establishing a whimsy between Dieter and his lucrative hobby, significantly when Dieter complicates things by taking a romantic interest in Gwendoline.
Army of Thieves remains fun and energetic through it all — explicitly calling out Steve Mazzaro and Hans Zimmer’s collaborative score. Dieter listens to classical music when cracking Wagner’s crown jewel lockboxes, influencing a score that takes a more contemporary approach to spice up Wagner’s sheet music. It’s staccato-peppy, introducing these rhythmic parade verses and standout crescendos that fit alongside Korina’s electronic DJ tracks.
Schweighöfer’s composition finds the excitement in Dieter’s ability to visualize the iron insides of the Rheingold, Valkyrie and Siegfried — all three safes — and conveys the meaning behind conquering each foe. Somehow Dieter’s journey mimics literary mythicism, like the stories about Norse gods that he tells before each “battle,” and it’s entertaining to watch his cohorts scramble elsewhere to ensure distractions buy enough time.
So the answer to everything is, “Yes!” Army of Thieves is an odd franchise continuation given impending the zombie implications, but it ditches its undead stench for the better. Matthias Schweighöfer handles Ludwig Dieter’s prelude with care, and while it’s rendered a bit inconsequential because of Army of the Dead, there’s still responsibility taken for such a backtrack. It’s corny in terms of homages to heist films, the silliness that’s birthed from special agents continually being bested or continued winks toward the audience as characters ask aloud if they’re in a movie (a cool heist movie, at that), and yet watchable throughout. There’s more impetus to care about Dieter and his buddies here than most of the disposable anti-heroes in Army of the Dead, so maybe that comparison alone earns Army of Thieves a few more points than anticipated. Development goes a long way, to the point where I’m almost certain we’ll be seeing Dieter again should Zack Snyder’s universe have the chance to say, “You never saw Dieter's corpse.”
Army of Thieves premieres exclusively on Netflix Oct. 29.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.