Inbetween the slow motion skull splats, unexplained robots and suggested alien influences of Zack Snyder’s entertaining but overstuffed Netflix opus Army Of The Dead, one thing that stood out is Matthias Schweighöfer’s jittery, German safe cracker Ludwig Dieter. I guess its fitting for Snyder’s rather esoteric career choices that he would choose to expand a universe where living corpses exist by following up a 2 hour and 28 minute zombie film with a prequel that has nothing to do with flesh eating ghouls, but nevertheless here we are at Army Of Thieves; an origin story for one of Dead’s weirder supporting characters.
In an experiment not dissimilar to Netflix’s Fear Street, the stage is set for a connected universe that hops genres like a deranged teleporter, but is there a universe that exists where an epic zombie shoot-em-up could possibly link up with a quirky heist movie starring a man so geeky, he actually says gulp out loud when worried?
As reports start coming out from Las Vegas of a full blown zombie apocalypse, mild mannered and introverted bank clerk Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert molders in a job he despises and loses himself in his hobby: that of obsessing about various ways of safe cracking.
One day he’s invited by a mysterious benefactor to an equally mysterious gathering where various safe crackers meet and go head to head to find the best of the best – something that Sebastian’s previously untapped talents finally have an outlet for. However, the competition is only a way for the mysterious benefactor, actually uber thief Gwendoline Starr, to pick a cracker to help her complete an epic heist that will involve busting open not one, not two, but three absurdly complicated vaults created by legendary locksmith Hans Wagner. Signing on with the hope he’ll enter a world of high adventure, Sebastian meets Gwen’s quirky crew – icy hacker Kornia, mouthy getaway driver Rolph and egotistical gunman Brad Cage – and heads off to Paris to complete their first task. However, standing in their way is a number of obstacles; obsessive Parisian detective Delacroix has a mad on for the team after a previous encounter and has vowed to bring them down by any means necessary is one such speed bump, another is the questionable sanity of Brad who’s suspicion of Gwen and Sebastian’s rapidly growing friendship rubs painfully against that massive ego.
Despite knowing that Sebastian is destined to change his name to Ludwig Dieter, finally get his hands on Wagner’s legendary fourth and final safe, The Götterdämmerung and get some face time with the zombies that plague his dreams, this doesn’t mean we know who, if any, of his crew mates will make it out of this heist with their lives or freedom intact.
While Army Of The Dead admittedly had a truck-load of issues, I actually responded pretty favourably to a Zack Snyder movie mercifully cut free from the restraints of the DCEU, but even I was struggling to see the reasoning behind an entire movie featuring the eccentric Ludwig Dieter which, in many ways, feels what would happen if someone had commissioned a Ned Leeds movie off the back of Spider-Man: Homecoming: it sounds adorable but would anyone actually be excited to see it? Well, to counteract the fact that they’ve made a zombieless spin-off to a famously massive zombie movie, the filmmakers, lead by Matthias Schweighöfer himself in the director’s chair, have done everything that can to have it’s own, quirky identity. Leaching off the cool, twitchy energy that heist movies such as Ocean’s Eleven and Now You See Me trade on, Army Of Thieves seems to initially trying to impishly mock these notoriously stylish entries in the genre by poking fun at all the infamously the smug tropes these films are famous for.
At one point the movie lances the cliche where someone describes an impending heist while we get a slickly edited montage of said heist being performed only for things to go wrong when they actually perform it, by having Sebastian discovers that they actually performed the robbery successfully while the montage was playing. Another original twist to the genre is the frankly ludicrous underground safe cracking competition that gets Sebastian involved in the first place, although its bizarre that a task that requires total and utter silence and that would be agonisingly boring to watch would attract such a loud and enthusiastic crowd…
The cast do their jobs well with Schweighöfer’s lead staying just on the right side of annoying, but extra marks go to Nathalie Emmanuel’s Gwendoline. I’ve had issues with the actress in the past who, outside of Game Of Thrones, is collectively responsible for some of worst line readings I’ve ever heard with the lion’s sharr coming from her Ramsey character from the Fast & Furious franchise – however, here she seems to have matured somewhat as an actress overnight and really should persue more gun-control, leadership roles in the future instead of having to unconvincingly vomit out pages of tech exposition that sound like she’s speaking an unfamiliar language.
While the zombies featured are largely kept to news reports, Army Of Thieves still manages to find time to stoke the embers of some of Army Of The Dead’s rumoured fan theories about extraterrestrials and such by having Dieter’s reoccurring nightmares about the undead echo his character’s fate in Army Of The Dead and Karina’s suggestion about them being prophecies of the future tie into theories about the franchise’s main players being stuck into some sort of time loop while being forced to live their lives over and over. While this is fun to speculate on if you’re a fan of this fledgling new franchise, it’ll mean precisely fuck all if you haven’t committed the previous film to memory.
Another issue the movie has is that despite all of its proud claims that it’s flipping the heist genre on its head, Army Of Thieves’ cheekiness runs out of gas and the movie reverts to type after its ballsy first third.
Still, if I’m being honest, I actually couldn’t help but be entised by what this deliberately lopsided franchise has in store for us next and with Snyder’s recently announced Planet Of The Dead on the horizon, we’re surely in for a bizarre… combination.
Not exemplary, not bad. Just safe.