Only with the creative freedom afforded by Netflix could the first of what’s intended to be many spinoffs from Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead be so drastically unlike the movie that spawned it. This year’s apocalyptic blockbuster was a blood-soaked $100 million zombie action thriller packed with wall-to-wall shootouts and action sequences, all shot with the director’s signature visual flair and sledgehammer subtlety.
Army of Thieves is absolutely nothing like its predecessor. Not only can you go in cold without having seen Army of the Dead, but you’d barely even know it was part of the same universe if it wasn’t for a couple of fever dreams featuring the undead and an epilogue that ties everything together in a neat little blow, helpfully explaining why Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward found Matthias Schweighöfer’s Ludwig Dieter in a store named Gwendoline’s.
Schweighöfer was hand-picked by Snyder to direct the film, and you can understand why from the very beginning. The former steward of the DCEU may not have been wielding the megaphone himself, but his fingerprints are all over Army of Thieves from start to finish. Not only did he co-write the story and produce, but several familiar stylistic flourishes from Army of the Dead are used to introduce new characters, although Schweighöfer still manages to put his own stamp on the proceedings to announce himself in Hollywood as an accomplished director in his own right.
A breezy cross-continental heist caper that plays like a cross between The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven with a healthy sprinkling of romantic comedy thrown in, Army of Thieves is almost formulaic to a fault and probably 20 minutes too long, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun ride.
Dieter, which we almost instantly discover isn’t actually his real name, works at a bank and dreams of being a world-famous safecracker, running a YouTube channel showcasing his skills that nobody watches. That all changes when Nathalie Emmanuel’s mysterious Gwendoline shows up on the scene, handpicking him to join her team with one very particular goal in mind; they want to rob three safes designed by the same person, all of which are almost mythical in nature and stature to Schweighöfer’s lifelong fan of master engineer Hans Wagner.
From there, you can pretty much guess where everything is heading, with the entire supporting cast ripped straight from the Heist Movie 101 playbook; Guz Khan’s Rolph is the sarcastic driver, Ruby O. Fee’s Korina is the eccentric tech expert, while Stuart Martin’s Brad Cage is the macho alpha male who even renamed himself to hammer home the self-belief that he’s the walking cross between Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage.
Throw in Jonathan Cohen as the grizzled Interpol agent that’s been tracking Gwendoline’s crew for years, and Army of Thieves isn’t going to show you anything you haven’t seen done before in the genre. If you’re not a fan of CGI shots showing the interior of a safe as the various gears click into place, then you’re sh*t out of luck, because there’s a lot of them.
However, Schweighöfer’s camerawork is never anything less than fluid, and it’s a testament to his prowess behind the lens that there are multiple scenes of Dieter with his ear pressed to a combination lock, and each one is framed and shot in an entirely different way to keep things moving. As an actor, he brings a winning blend of boisterous enthusiasm, effortless comic timing and innocently vulnerable charisma to his performance, which is all the more impressive when you consider the fresh-faced star is 40 years old and playing an out of his depth novice criminal.
Sparks fly whenever he shares any scenes with Emmanuel, even though we know from Army of the Dead that there isn’t a happy ending at the end of a rainbow for the pair. As a calling card for both his on and offscreen careers, Schweighöfer has big things in his future based on what he brings to the table on two fronts here.
Credit must also go to the score from Steve Mazzaro and Hans Zimmer, which zips along at the same pace of the story, and neither the musical or narrative cues are ever beholden to what happens in Army of the Dead, either. Many prequels and spinoffs find themselves bending over backwards to join the dots and connect to previous installments in whatever franchise they hail from, but Army of Thieves isn’t interested in that.
Sure, there are multiple references to the zombie apocalypse in Las Vegas and a nod towards Hiroyuki Sanada’s Bly Tanaka, but Snyder has handed Schweighöfer an almost completely blank canvas to deliver a fast-paced, funny and frothy crime caper that just so happens to take place against the backdrop of a world that will one day see Garrett Dillahunt torn to shreds in the most gruesome fashion possible by an undead white tiger.
If this is what we can expect from the rest of the franchise while Snyder handles the blood and guts in main installments like Army and Planet of the Dead, then sign us up. Army of Thieves doesn’t boast much in the way of originality or surprises, but it’s two hours of giddy entertainment that delivers the expansion of the mythology we didn’t even know that we wanted.
Army of Thieves isn't the most original or inventive heist movie you'll ever see; but it's a massively entertaining expansion of Zack Snyder's undead cinematic universe.