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Dir: Matthias Schweighöfer. Starring: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Guz Khan, Ruby O Fee, Stuart Martin, Jonathan Cohen. 15, 129 minutes.
The fact that Army of Thieves even exists is a great compliment to Zack Snyder. A prequel to Army of the Dead, Snyder’s zombie heist film released by Netflix earlier this year, it is almost entirely devoid of the ravaging undead. And it focuses not on Dave Bautista’s hulking and daring Scott Ward, the franchise’s lead, but on the comedic relief: Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), a character who was never much more than a funny German accent and a handful of missed social cues. If Netflix did not trust Snyder wholeheartedly, would they ever have greenlit a film with such a lacklustre premise?
But, as we’ve seen time and time again, too much trust can lead to too much indulgence – and Army of Thieves is a half-baked thought let loose on the world without any discretion. There’s no drive to it, no sense of purpose. In fact, it functions far less convincingly as part of Snyder’s wide game plan (an anime prequel focused on Scott is also on the books) than as a standalone, Europe-traversing heist film – as seen through the eyes of a character who regards the criminal life with a rose-tinted naivete.
Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert (Schweighöfer), who operates under the alias Ludwig Dieter in Army of the Dead, is a bank teller in Potsdam, outside Berlin. He has a luckless side-gig as a safe-cracking expert on YouTube – whose videos have, somehow, collectively, not acquired a single view. For shame, since no one else has dedicated themselves more fervently to the work of safe-maker Hans Wagner, the creator of a masterpiece in four parts: a series of safes, each named after one of the operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle (there is a shortage of German last names in this universe, so it would seem).
But Sebastian has rather miraculously caught the eye of international jewel thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), who enlists him for her planned heist of the three known surviving Wagner safes (the fourth, as we already know, becomes the target in Army of the Dead). The newly christened “zombie apocalypse” in America has triggered financial chaos across the globe, and the rich are keen to consolidate and protect their fortunes.
Snyder’s fingerprints are so faint that they’re barely perceptible – he shares only a producer credit with his partner Deborah and a story credit with screenwriter Shay Hatten. The job of director has instead been handed down to Schweighöfer himself, a prolific talent in Germany, who consciously avoids the untampered excess of Snyder’s style but swings so far the other way that the film ends up feeling largely devoid of personality.
Army of Thieves is supposedly powered by the conceit that it’s more of a “romcom heist” than anything else, as Sebastian quickly finds himself bewitched by his recruiter – an idea that’s treated as revolutionary enough to justify the string of meta-jokes picking apart heist clichés. But what, exactly, is new material here? Even Danny Ocean did it for love. It’s a touch ironic that the film scorns the genre’s tendency to first play out a heist plan on screen, then turn back and show how it all went terribly wrong.
In truth, Army of Thieves could have benefitted from a little of that internal tension. Its heists look oddly casual, as characters strut, uncontested, into high-security areas, giving the impression that it’s easier to rob a bank than it is to sneak into the VIP section of a club. And all this time, Snyder’s zombies sit idly by in the wings, ready to justify Army of Thieves’s existence but never called upon to do so.