Director: Matthias Schweighöfer
Writers: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten
Cast: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ruby O. Fee, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan, Jonathan Cohen, Noémie Nakai
Cinematographer: Bernhard Jasper
Editor: Alexander Berner
Streaming on: Netflix
A sleek and snappy heist movie, Army of Thieves pointedly deploys its genre tropes with a wink-wink humor that frequently verges on parody. How then, does it manage to still feel so fresh? By simultaneously serving as the origin story for a character so profoundly uncool, the novelty of his criminal activities elicits in him a giddy glee that steadily suffuses the whole film.
German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), part of the team that pulled off the Nevada casino heist in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, is neither Ludwig nor safecracker yet in this prequel, set six years earlier. His real name is Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert and he possesses only theoretical knowledge of his felony of choice. Set in the early days of the zombie apocalypse, the film relegates the Army of the Dead outbreak to news reports and dream sequences, focusing on Sebastian’s initially dreary life and subsequent foray into international crime.
Shay Hatten, who co-wrote the Army of Thieves screenplay with Snyder, combines the director’s propensity for grandiose mythmaking with a cheeky storytelling style. The film starts out contained, with Sebastian in his apartment, talking directly to the camera as he films a YouTube video, before the phrase, “Once upon a time…” cues up a montage of Homeric proportions. Sebastian talks of the legendary locksmith Hans Wagner, who designed four intricate, near-impenetrable safes based on composer Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas. The least complex of these has 413 million potential combinations, which the film only reveals later — this short sequence isn’t interested so much in facts as it is in fable, depicting the loving hand with which these safes were crafted, and their maker’s choice of poetic death, locked inside one of them.
This mythical interlude sets the tone for the more fantastical elements of the movie, including a stretch that sees the mild-mannered Sebastian invited to an underground safecracking ring that hosts competitions with running commentary, a massive digital timer and raucous crowds. It helps that his inner monologue is charming throughout and the film is self-aware enough to have him acknowledge how silly all of this is. It even pokes fun at its title. “This is our whole international heist crew? Four people?” asks Sebastian in disbelief once he joins film’s eponymous ‘army’, assembled to crack three of Wagner’s famed safes. One of his teammates even goes by the pseudonym ‘Brad Cage’, modelling his persona on the action-hero machismo of Brad Pitt and Nicholas Cage. As hard as the film leans into and pokes fun at the conventions of the heist genre, however, it also attempts to position itself as being above them. For some of Sebastian’s teammates, acquiring the millions stored in Wagner’s safes is secondary to the allure of being within touching distance of these precious artefacts.
Gray dominates Army of Thieves, with the monotony of Sebastian’s life illustrated through perpetually overcast skies, the cobbled streets of his town and the polished subway escalators. He even wears a uniformly gray suit to his day job as a bank teller. By contrast, the gleaming gray metal of the safes he cracks open is rendered lovingly, their whirring gears and ornate mechanisms shot in closeup. Sebastian’s dorky reverence for his craft goes a long way in drumming up interest in a quiet, largely internal process. Dynamic camera movements and operatic scores enliven what would otherwise be a repetitive series of fingers gingerly turning knobs, ears pressed to steel and eyes screwed shut in concentration. Even the fledgling romance between Sebastian and his teammate Gwendoline (an icy cool Nathalie Emmanuel) is informed by their shared love of safecracking, each a vault of secrets in search of the right person to open up to.
While the actual heists are complex, with lots of moving parts, they initially lack gravity as the team’s easy confidence and up-tempo score make success feel inevitable. (Some of the film’s funniest moments revolve around how ridiculously accomplished each team member is.) A shootout and high-stakes cliffside chase add heft to the film eventually, but it still can’t quite convey the urgency of the timeline in which these heists must be carried out. Still, this lightness is what keeps Army of Thieves fun enough that its adherence to formula doesn’t matter at all. It gives a minor Army of the Dead character a showcase of his own, and a pretty delightful one at that.