Is it Safe?

Matthias Schweighofer elevates ‘Army of Thieves’ just above the clichés of the heist genre

Before getting to Army of Thieves, it’s fair to ask why Netflix felt compelled to make a prequel to this year’s zombie/heist mashup Army of the Dead,  which doesn’t demand its own cinematic universe. This new heist flick is good, but doesn’t have anything to do with Zack Snyder’s original.

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It’s more a crash-course in Heist cinema, with a whole lot of Oceans 11, Point Break, Premium Rush and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in the mix. With excellent cinematic craftsmanship and some infectious characters, Army of Thieves nearly places itself within that canon, even when it’s too enamored with genre cliches.

Matthias Schweighofer is incredible as Ludwig Dieter–the part nerd, part Eurotrash safecracker who stole the show as a sidekick in Army of the Dead. He’s not your typical hero, and he’s not even your typical human being, as he puts cucumbers on sandwiches and wears turtlenecks with suspenders.

But he takes center stage in the prequel, which introduces Dieter as a bank-teller named Sebastian who as a hobby posts how-to videos on the internet about opening safes. It turns out he has a follower in Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), who leads a band of crooks that includes killer Brad (Stuart Martin), hacker Korina (Ruby Fee) and getaway driver Rolf (Guz Khan).

Matthias Schweighofer and Nathalie Emmanuel meet cute in the zombie-heist movie ‘Army of Thieves.’

The plot follows their scheme to complete a trio of bank robberies named after Wagner’s Ring Cycle, because why not?  Meanwhile, a zombie outbreak in Vegas has caused a number of billionaires to move their assets abroad, an opportunity Gwendoline hopes to fully exploit.

While the movie has little to do with Army of the Dead, Schweighofer takes a page out of Zack Snyder’s playbook, using genre tropes and cinematic callbacks. Along with Hans Zimmer’s powerhouse score and Bernhard Jasper’s jumpy cinematography, Army of Thieves rounds up all the usual suspects: the cop with a funny name, the double cross that’s really a triple cross, the Nixon mask that screams, “Hey you guys, we saw Point Break!”

Army of Thieves feels like a throwback genre flick, but it could have left some of its traits in the past, like the totally unnecessary this is how it really happened exposition dumps. The post-heist sequences take up more time than the actual heists, never allowing the film to build an air of mystery.

Schweighofer, who wrote the script with Snyder, is concerned very much with the hows but not so much the whys. For the sake of storytelling, the movie keeps some crucial details too vague, like why Sebastian wants to rob banks in the first place. He’s desperate, unpredictable and incredibly determined, willing to leave his entire life behind at the drop of a hat, but we never know why he does what he does.

The surprise of Army of Thieves is that while Sebastian and Gwendoline are robbing banks, they quietly and convincingly form a relationship, swept away by each other’s kind-hearted nature. Schweighofer’s twisty, turny homage to Heist cinema is an action-packed romp with a good sense of humor, but it’s also a surprisingly moving look at a man who can crack any safe on the planet, but can’t crack the puzzle of his emotions. It’s a nice touch, and what ultimately saves this film from becoming a pointless prequel.

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Asher Luberto

Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, The Progressive and The Village Voice.

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