There are certain films whose reasons for existing are a complete mystery, usually phrased in that eternal question, “How did this get made?” Take, for example, Army Of Thieves, a spinoff of Zack Snyder’s Army Of The Dead (in which a team of badasses broke into a casino vault in zombie-infested Las Vegas) that focuses on a mildly annoying supporting character and is set in Europe a few years before the events of the original. It is, in other words, a zombie-movie prequel without the zombie stuff.
Even as a purely commercial venture, representative of the barrel-scraping of our age of streamable franchise content, Army Of Thieves is perplexing. Are there people out there who were clamoring to learn the origin story of Matthias Schweighöfer’s safecracking German nerdlinger? Or for more of his squirmy antics, minus the distraction of charismatic stars or horror elements and perhaps in a more generic heist-movie setting? (Furthermore, the title is a misnomer: There are, at best, five thieves here.)
Given that Army Of Thieves was filmed well before the release of Army Of The Dead, there are two potential explanations: Either Netflix is testing to see how many people will watch something just because it’s new and there, or the producers expected the character of Ludwig Dieter to become some kind of breakout. Another possibility is that Schweighöfer, who also directed the film, has serious dirt on some figures of shadowy influence.
To be fair, the opening stretch of Army Of Thieves is actually sort of fun. There’s a backstory involving four elaborate safes inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle, built by a master locksmith who subsequently died by intentionally locking himself in an impenetrable vault of his own design. Ludwig Dieter, as we learn, is no career criminal: He’s a dorky safecracking hobbyist from Potsdam, real name Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert. After being mysteriously invited to an underground safecracking competition with a distinct 2000s-vampire-nightclub vibe, he gets recruited by internationally wanted thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) for her team.
Cue introductions of the rest of the low-rent crew, with the requisite freeze-frames, flashbacks, and on-screen text. One is a hacker who’s famous for putting a Pirates Of The Caribbean movie online; another, an action-star wannabe who’s changed his name to “Brad Cage.” The plan is to rob the first three Wagner safes, which are currently scattered in different cities, but are all due to be moved to parts unknown in a matter of days. (The fourth, called Götterdämmerung, is the Vegas vault in Army Of The Dead.)
The idea of a group of decidedly minor-league cons trying to make it into the major leagues, maybe with a Now You See Me standard of realism, is not unappealing. But the promise of a brainless good time proves false once the actual thieving begins. Under Schweighöfer’s anonymously slick and rhythmless direction, the heists turn into anticlimactic jumbles of uninspired fights and chases, intercut with numerous CGI close-ups of tumblers, pins, gears, and wheels at work. (If nothing else, the last will please diehard fans of the old Lionsgate logo.) The beginning of a zombie outbreak in the United States is playing out on the news, which occasionally gives Ludwig/Sebastian undead-inspired nightmares. But it mostly just feels like a way to insert some random zombie footage into a non-zombie film.
The pleasure of caper movies lies partly in the suspense of watching the puzzle pieces of a convoluted plan fall into place and partly in the group chemistry. Army Of Thieves has neither. The pace becomes interminable; stakes are nowhere to be found, despite the presence of a time limit (which never feels pressing) and a ridiculous Interpol antagonist (who is pursuing the crew because they once shot him in the ass). And then there’s the problem of the protagonist. Consistently unfunny and periodically grating, Schweighöfer’s wide-eyed Sebastian/Ludwig manages to scrape maybe one decent laugh out of the film’s two-hour-plus running time. Considering that anyone who sticks with Army Of Thieves long enough to finish the intro will count as a viewer in Netflix’s metrics, it’s entirely possible the real joke is on us.