Army of the Dead, this summer’s gruesome zombie frolic, had a surprising amount of fun, turning the not-so-enticing notion of Zack Snyder partnering with Netflix into something oddly hard-to-deny. It was his most exuberantly enjoyable offering in years, and Snyder, correctly anticipating its success (it immediately became one of the streamer’s most-watched films ever), began work on a prequel called Army of Thieves months before it ever debuted.
The result is a unique film that switches genres and directors while keeping the same raucous energy, a fast-paced adventure that puts zombies in the background. While Army of the Dead was a horror film with a heist, Army of Thieves is a heist film with no horror, more predictable and forgettable but nonetheless slickly efficient, a bizarre next step for the Army franchise (a straight sequel and an anime prequel series are both in the works) that somehow works.
Thieves follows Matthias Schweighöfer’s German safecracker Dieter before he arrived in Nevada six years ago, just as the zombie apocalypse was kicking out. The protagonists seem amusingly unconcerned about the approaching catastrophe, which we see on TV screens and in dream sequences but never up close.
Dieter is merely a safecracker in theory, publishing YouTube videos that no one watches while working as a lonely bank teller. But one day, he gets a mystery letter from Gwendoline (Game of Thrones alum Nathalie Emmanuel), who recruits him to join her gang of thieves (Guz Khan, Stuart Martin, and Ruby O Fee) in cracking the world’s most difficult safes.
Army of Thieves, a niche fan service that adds history to a character who we know will die later on, isn’t really required, but Schweighöfer, who also acts as director, keeps his bubbly caper afloat with a light knockabout tone, never insisting on the picture being anything it isn’t.
The script, written by Army of the Dead co-writer Shay Hatten, is stitched together from the heist movie playbook with no grand attempts to reinvent the genre, instead coasting on the simple pleasures of formula, but he connects the dots with just about enough charm as we follow the ragtag team from city to city (a Netflix film with multiple locations is not to be sniffed at) and safe to safe.
What the film does achieve aesthetically is a more immersive picture of what it takes to breach a safe, with some fantastic effects transporting us inside the safe’s mechanisms while Dieter works his magic. It’s a clever idea that injects some life into a procedure that may be tedious at times.
Schweighöfer’s goofy-but-goes-to-the-gym schtick is hard to resist, and he gives the kind of warm, well-calibrated performance that Ryan Reynolds often tries, and often fails, to give, and he’s as confident behind the camera as he is in front, buoyed by a grand Hans Zimmer score, a bold studio sizzle reel that should lead to more Hollywood work.
Emmanuel, who had romcom appeal in 2019’s popular Four Weddings and a Funeral TV series, brings some of it to a charming, though a little anemic, relationship with Schweighöfer in this film. At almost two hours, it’s a bit lengthy for a picture that should seem light, and the last act is a little droopy as the inevitable double-crosses and “oh but that was really what was happening” revelations leak out (the narrative twists and turns are not quite as whip-smart as the film seems to think they are).
But, considering the destiny of Dieter’s character (recalling the ending of Black Widow), there’s an intriguingly destined melancholy that comes to the fore at the very end, and it packs a punch.
The low stakes sturdiness of Army of Thieves marks it out as one of Netflix’s more enjoyable originals of late (it’s a heist movie about heists, not a heist movie about, say, trauma), and there’s an immense satisfaction in relaxing into an old-fashioned genre film that’s content to hit simple, familiar beats with finesse, no more no less (something that also makes the streamer’s new western The Harder They Fall As the platform’s never-ending supply of low-budget TV movies continues, a key combination has been discovered.
Thanks to Benjamin Lee at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.