Army of Thieves, Matthias Schweighöfer’s prequel to Zack Snyder’s rollicking Las Vegas zombie heist flick Army of the Dead, borrows Snyder’s visual flourishes and knowing humor. It also asks a bold question Snyder’s film neglected: How exciting is safecracking in this world without the zombies that defined the first film? The answer: not very. It’s about as thrilling as watching a hacker slap away at a keyboard.
In Army of the Dead, lovable, scrawny German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Schweighöfer) teams with a band of rough-and-tumble mercenaries to rob a zombie-infested Las Vegas hotel by breaking into a near-unbreakable safe called the Götterdämmerung. In the opening to Army of Thieves, set six years earlier, Dieter is sitting in his quaint apartment in Postad, Germany recording a YouTube video about the vault’s history. Created by Hans Wagner, a locksmith sickened by the death of his wife and son, four super-safes take their names from the Ring Cycle: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Once he finished the safes, Wagner locked himself inside one, and had it dropped to the bottom of the ocean.
The legend is a favorite bedtime story for Dieter, who dreams about finding and beating Wagner’s safes. He has a chance to accomplish that fantasy when Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), a thief with an Interpol red notice to her name, recruits him to pull off a trio of heists involving three of the safes.
Army of Thieves has been crafted to bring Netflix into the franchise biz, creating cinematic universes akin to the ones Marvel and DC have been expanding for years. But Schweighöfer’s prequel fails to offer the same level of excitement or gore as Snyder’s film. The heists are all snoozing affairs, and ultimately, the film succumbs to the script’s franchise ambitions.
Schweighöfer’s origin-story film begins on a strong note by telling audiences more about the delightful nerd Dieter, known in this story as Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert. Sebastian waltzes through life with the same routine: He puts on a blue windowpane suit, gets a banana nut muffin and coffee from the local café, and reports to his crummy bank job. It’s a staid existence that’s changed by two events: There are reports of a zombie apocalypse happening in America, and there’s one lone, solitary view and comment on his YouTube video, instructing him to report to a secret house with the password “Götterdämmerung.”
The cheeky script, written by Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum), tries to emulate Snyder’s bleak humor. Sebastian arrives at the mysterious house to discover an underground tournament of safecrackers populated by punkish contestants named Fireball, Valiant, Neo, and so forth. The tease of another nefarious underworld recalls Hatten’s work in the John Wick universe, but that tantalizing, absurdist tease of a story about too-cool-for-school safecrackers going head-to-head is abandoned in favor of a more conventional tale.
The cookie-cutter narrative beats have Gwendoline introducing Sebastian to her team: Rolph (Guz Khan), a getaway driver with mad driving skills; the master hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), and Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), an archetypal action hero who became inspired to lift weights by watching Nicolas Cage in Con Air. Unlike the gang in Army of the Dead, none of these characters possess an ounce of emotional depth, and their group dynamics and motivations are paper-thin. Gwendoline, for instance, wants Dieter to crack the trio of Wagner safes to attain legendary status. But the script does very little work to make her desire or her team’s interest in going along for the ride feel believable. While each safe holds a great deal of money, when Dieter does crack them, the bandits barely try to make out with any of it.
The same lack of motivation goes for Interpol agents Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) and his partner Beatrix (Noémie Nakai). Delacroix’s obsession with the group stems from Brad shooting him in the buttocks. That’s a slim motivation for him, and it’s unclear why he’s chasing vengeance and Gwendoline and company are obsessed with cracking a trio of safes when everyone knows the zombie apocalypse is spreading. Shouldn’t the entire world be thrown into panic?
The myopic goals of franchise-building consume Army of Thieves down to the rind. The origin of Sebastian’s eventual Ludwig Dieter pseudonym is tied to a comic book, with cringeworthy abandon. Sebastian often has dreams of zombies coming to kill him, setting up the story beat in Army of the Dead where he locks himself in a safe for protection. And the film’s prologue connects directly to Snyder’s flick, through a flash-forward sequence. The only variation Schweighöfer takes is in the look and the feel of his movie: It isn’t nearly as bleak. Brightly lit and with far less gunplay, it also isn’t as gruesome — or as entertaining, for that matter. The quirky humor drowns the film in maudlin seas.
Army of Thieves’ gravest sin, however, isn’t its reedy characters, unadventurous spirit, or cloying franchise-building. The heists are all just plain boring. The trio of safes are supposed to be located in three different countries: France, the Czech Republic and Switzerland — but you wouldn’t know about the teased globetrotting, judging from the scant visual hints about any scene’s location. Borrowing from other heist films, Schweighöfer uses a montage of characters enacting the heist in their heads to build tension. But here, the familiar tactic deflates the drama, because their plan lacks panache. One heist, dripping with references to Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Blank, leads to a nauseating gunfight shot that cinematographer Bernhard Jasper captures with an overzealous handheld.
The final hurdle, initially taking place at a casino — sound familiar? — is totally undercut by setting the final safecracking scene elsewhere. At every turn, Schweighöfer tries to make Sebastian’s solitary enterprise thrilling, but he misunderstands the character and the heist genre. When Sebastian, unprompted, tells his team in Army of the Dead about the mythology around the Götterdämmerung, it’s cute and endearing. When he does the same to Gwendoline, using the Wagner cycle to explain his love for her and for safes, it comes off as creepy mansplaining. And by revolving a film totally around safecracking, he misses that the draw of a heist movie isn’t breaking into a safe, it’s the plan used to gain access and escape with the rewards afterward.
Army of Thieves doesn’t crack the franchise puzzle, mostly because the movie doesn’t provide sufficient reason for one to exist. Dieter was a lovable highlight in Army of the Dead, but this film doesn’t offer any greater understanding of him. When the final scene tacks on footage from Snyder’s film in a decidedly disjointed aesthetic switch, the emotional throughline from this version of Dieter to the version we see six years later is barely perceptible. If a prequel was absolutely necessary, then seeing what Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and his team went through when the zombie apocalypse broke out might have packed a sufficient punch. Instead, Schweighöfer’s prequel loses the winning combination this charming character possessed in Snyder’s flick, in lieu of a yawn-inducing vault toward nothingness.
Army of Thieves is streaming on Netflix now.