'Army of Thieves' review: Prequel ditches zombie mayhem for decent, but formulaic, heist caper
Courtesy of Netflix
Effortlessly trying to build a pipeline of franchise content, the starved streamer Netflix is exhuming a variety of options these days. One of them is getting into bed with Zack Snyder who’s zombie/heist thriller “Army of the Dead” became a massive hit when it debuted back in May. Little did we know, a prequel was already filmed and in the can with the hopes of creating a sort-of Snyder/Zombie cinematic universe. “Army of Thieves” is the first spin-off bred from “Army of the Dead,” which, instead of boring trip into a zombie infested hot zone, puts the spotlight on scene-stealing German safecracker Dieter (played with a zippy glee by Matthias Schweighöfer) six years before he would venture into Nevada amid the outbreak.
Thankfully, “Army of Thieves” ditches the nonessential gory, bloody violence of Snyder’s previous iteration for something more character driven and fun. It’s formulaic of course, but Schweighöfer brings the same rousing energy and comedic timing that stood out in “Army of the Dead,” though he had to share screen-time with characters who weren’t as interesting. This is his show, and the switching of genre and director turns out to be the best course of action for a “franchise” that already seemed on life support.
“Thieves” follows Dieter, who’s real name is actually Sebastian, in the days and months before he would use his impeccable safe-cracking skills for a life of crime. His only claim to fame, if that’s what you can call it, is a YouTube channel where he posts videos that garner exactly zero views. One day, however, he does get one view and even a comment that leads him to an underground citadel of safecrackers. After proving his worth in a battle royale against these prominent vault raiders, Gwendoline (Natalie Emmanuel) invites Dieter to join her crew (Guz Khan, Stuart Martin, and Ruby O Fee) for a massive job involving the world’s most impenetrable safes. It’s the holy grail for someone like Dieter, who appreciates the art of building safes and the artistry that goes into making them even if his peers are looking for a massive payday.
“Army of Thieves,” similar to most prequels that branch out for no other reason than to make a quick buck, exists to offer niche fan service, but it’s better than your average prequel where Schweighöfer is the difference maker. As someone who didn’t find much enjoyment in “Army of the Dead,” this was a nice surprise despite the screenplay, co-written by Shay Hatten, being pieced together by every heist movie cliche known to mankind. There’s inspired moments, like the visuzlation of safecracking that offers an engaging behind-the-scenes-look of the process, and the romance which transpires between Dieter and Gwendoline doesn’t feel cheap or forced, but genuine.
At the end of the day, while unnecessary, “Army of Thieves” thrives because Schweighöfer’s go-for-broke attitude pushes this overlong, low-stakes, heist caper into the realm of enjoyability.
ARMY OF THIEVES debuts on Netflix Friday, October 29th