Though at times predictable and drawn-out, Matthias Schweighöfer’s Army of Thieves is a clever, offbeat heist flick that more than stands on its own two feet as a prequel to Army of the Dead.
Hitting streaming just months after the release of its parent film Army of the Dead, Matthias Schweighöfer’s heist comedy-drama Army of Thieves seems like an unorthodox choice for the first step in expanding Zack Snyder’s zombie cinematic universe – but it’s certainly a welcome one. Though at times predictable and drawn-out, Army of Thieves is a surprisingly charming heist flick that fully embraces the singular nature of its protagonist to craft a quirky, fun-filled (if by the numbers) adventure that serves as the origin story Army of the Dead’s beloved character.
Directed by and starring Matthias Schweighöfer, Army of Thieves follows sweet but socially awkward German bank teller Sebastian (Schweighöfer) who runs a viewless YouTube channel about safecracking. His world is turned upside down when a mysterious woman named Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) catches the notice of talent and invites him to join her crew of criminals in cracking a ring of legendary impenetrable safes around Europe. Along the way he finds himself falling for Gwendoline, much to the chagrin of her rough and tumble boyfriend, Brad (Stuart Martin).
Though Army of the Dead was technically a heist film (albeit, heavy on the action and zombie elements), Army of Thieves feels like a significant tonal shift in Snyder’s newly expanded universe – but not an unwelcome one. The film may retain a few signature Snyder-isms (like a penchant for mythic, high-stakes lore and handheld camerawork) Thieves breaks away from its parent film and instead operates for all intents and purposes as a standalone movie that happens to have a few nods to the impending zombie apocalypses Sebastian/Dieter will eventually meet his demise in.
While diehard action fans or zombie nuts will be disappointed at the lack of both elements (which were heavily present in AotD), we found ourselves refreshed by Army of Thieves‘ commitment to being its film, and not remaining overly reliant on callbacks and references to the rest of the expanded universe. Instead, Army of Thieves builds its identity around its protagonist Sebastian (Dieter, as we knew him in Army of the Dead) and is all the better for it – he was far and away from the most likable character in his first appearance, and that charm continues to work wonders here.
As Sebastian, Schweighöfer makes for an incredibly compelling, endearing leading man, and his charisma alone almost singlehandedly saves the film from being typical run-of-the-mill heist fare. Sebastian/Dieter is almost an anti-anti hero: in a world full of broody badasses and chainsaw-wielding skull-crackers, he’s a cheery, opera-listening nerd who can hardly throw a punch to save his life. The film makes no attempts to forcibly slot him into the role of a traditional leading man now that he’s at the center of his film and instead embraces those aforementioned traits that made him so likable in the first place: not just doubling down on them in terms of Sebastian’s character, but letting his quirkiness bleed into the filmmaking style itself.
Granted, Army of Thieves is hardly at Wes Anderson or David Lynch levels of personality and uniqueness – it follows a very traditional, very predictable narrative structure, and the third act leaves a little to be desired, especially considering the overblown runtime – but Schweighöfer is a more than competent director whose use of transitions, narration, and Hans Zimmer’s remarkable score makes for an engaging flick elevated beyond typical heist fare.
Admittedly, Army of Thieves isn’t perfect. Though it fills in some blanks about Dieter’s backstory, it doesn’t give us much insight as to who he is as a person – just further enforces the quirks and ideas we were presented with in Army of The Dead. The runtime is also about a half-hour too long for a film of its scope and caliber, and though the ensemble cast does a satisfying enough job in their roles, most come off as stock characters except for Nathalie Emmanuel, who continues to elevate virtually every action movie she’s a part of.
Still, even if it’s a little long and a little predictable, Army of Thieves has more than enough charm and personality to make for an engaging watch and a worthwhile prequel. While it may not be much we haven’t seen before, Matthias Schweighöfer almost singlehandedly makes the film worth a watch – whether or not you were a fan of his original turn in Army of the dead.