Just six months after the release of Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead,” Netflix delivers “Army of Thieves,” a prequel to the over-the-top zombie heist movie. “Army of Thieves” turns back the clock and takes a look at the early life of safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Before teaming up with Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to steal from zombie-infested Las Vegas, Dieter is living a boring life in Germany. His real passion in safecracking and he gets an opportunity to put his skills to the test when the mysterious Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) recruits him for the job he’s been dreaming of: a series of heists robbing the legendarily uncrackable safes called the Ring Cycle. Dieter must take on the life of crime for the first time as he works to become the acclaimed safecracker he has always wanted to be.
The tagline on the poster for “Army of Thieves” is “More Safes. Less Zombies.” That says about everything anyone needs to know about this movie. Who in the world would want to see an entry in a franchise about zombies that doesn’t have any zombies in it? The whole premise for “Army of the Dead” is that it is a zombie heist movie. “Army of Thieves” is just a heist movie, and a particularly generic one at that. “Army of Thieves” is a movie that no one asked for, trying to fill a hole that doesn’t exist.
Just as a prequel, “Army of Thieves” really struggles. A prequel is typically useful to give background for the original movie and provide more context for what people have seen. Sometimes, there is a big question that needs to be answered. “Army of Thieves” doesn’t do any of this. In “Army of the Dead,” there are no unanswered questions with Dieter. There is nothing in the original that begs for more from him. “Army of Thieves” attempts to add dramatic backstory to a lighthearted character. It doesn’t tell any more about this character than was already implied in the original. Plus, “Army of Thieves” seems to think Dieter is a hugely important character. For example, when the character abandons the name “Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert ” for the pseudonym “Ludwig Dieter,” the movie treats it with disproportionate reverence, with swelling music and a dramatic look into the camera. The movie treats him like he’s Han Solo in “Solo” or Mike and Sully in “Monsters University” rather than what he really is: some guy from a moderately liked action movie from six months ago.
Aside from its relationship to the rest of the series, “Army of Thieves” doesn’t really work in a vacuum either. The movie is about as traditional of a heist movie as there is. It feels almost algorithmic at times. A series of progressively more high stakes heists. A betrayal. A team of different experts. A lazily generic government antagonist trying to stop the heist. It’s all things people have seen 1000 times before and typically better executed anyway. The film tries to poke fun at the heist tropes with meta jokes about them, but these jokes ultimately fall flat when the film just does the tropes anyway. If this movie was a standalone film, it still would be wholly unremarkable.
The saving grace of the movie is Matthias Schweighöfer. Schweighöfer is excellent as Dieter. He plays the character’s anxiety and inexperience well, but never makes him annoying. He is funny and charming and will be a welcome presence as a character actor down the road. He likely is best served as a fun secondary character rather than the lead, but he still breaks out as a potential new star. Schweighöfer also directed the film, which, while not displaying anything particularly exceptional in his direction, is something that proves there is some talent from him that is there to be tapped into going forward.
In “Army of Thieves,” there are a few instances where characters, in the midst of planning a heist, see the news of a zombie outbreak in the background. That’s what the movie almost always feels like. There’s a zombie movie just out of frame and instead we’re watching a formulaic heist movie instead. The movie is functional, but is not something anyone was asking for. “Army of Thieves” is essentially doomed from the start and never manages to feel like it is worth anyone’s time
“Army of Thieves” is available to stream on Netflix.
By Ben Lindner