Army of Thieves is a vapid prequel to Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead earlier this year. While I had issues with Snyder’s zombie-infested Vegas Casino heist romp, I never found it insufferable, which is more than I can say for Army of Thieves. It tries for Snyder’s verve but lacks the real gusto to back it up.
The movie is directed and starring Matthias Schweighofer, about his “lovable” dorky, safe-cracker character Ludwig Dieter. Ludwig Dieter is a name based on a comic he drew as a child; his real name is Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert. Ludwig was a one-note character in Snyder’s movie, so the decision to give him his own film is puzzling at best.
Army of Thieves is a visually competent heist movie during the early days of the zombie infestation. If I had seen this pre-pandemic, I might have been skeptical of why people in the beginnings of a zombie plague would bother with any of this. A quest to crack three legendary safes made by a legendary safe maker Hans Wagner inspired by the German composer Richard Wagner’s Ring trilogy of operas seems odd considering the circumstance. However, at the tail end of 2021, I see this as the most natural thing in the whole movie.
Army of Thieves is a pretty cookie-cutter heist movie, with Shay Hatten’s script doing a pretty good paint by numbers while also tossing in a few scenes of zombies to keep the film connected to the Army of the Dead zombie verse. Even then, Hatten can’t seem to figure out how to make his characters who seem to wane between intelligent to dunderheads within the span of a scene.
It also doesn’t help that Sebastian isn’t that interesting of a character. Still, even worse, Schweighofer has zero chemistry with anyone else in the movie. A shame because Nathalie Emmanuel’s Gwendoline Starr, the renowned international thief who recruits Sebastian, has charisma and charm to spare.
On some level, I understand that Army of Thieves is Schweighofer’s movie, but it sometimes felt like he was hogging the film. There were countless times where a scene would be moving along only to be stopped cold so Schweighofer could do a bit of mugging for the camera. Of course, Gwendoline is the love interest. Still, her character, a socialite who becomes a criminal after discovering her father got rich off the 2008 crash, is much more fascinating than Sebastian, a twee middle-class office worker who moonlights as an amateur locksmith.
Gwendoline’s crew has all the staples; the hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), the grifter/get-away driver Rolph (Guz Khan), and the muscle Brad Cage (Stuart Martin). Brad’s real name is Alexis, but he wanted to change his name to something that sounded like an American action star. Each of these characters and the actors who play them is brimming with charm, and as a crew, there’s a fun little dynamic that could have been quite a lot of fun if not for Schwighofer’s ego and constant need to insert himself in every scene.
One such instance involves Sebastian and Gwendoline after they have cracked the first Wager safe. The two are back at the hideout, having a heart-to-heart. Sebastian discovers that Gwendoline and Brad are together and that Brad Cage isn’t his real name. As Gwendoline begins to tell us her backstory, her voice fades out as the camera pans to Sebastian, and his voice-over begins, “Look at me. Here I am talking to one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever met.” Talking to yes, listening to, no.
There’s no chemistry between either Emmanuel or Schweighofer, and to make matters worse, they have several scenes together, all making the movie feel interminable. Few things are more challenging to watch than watching an onscreen couple trying to convince you they are meant to be together when there is zero connection. Poor Emmanuel is trying her best, but neither Hatten’s script of Schewighofer’s direction does anything but leave staring moon-eyed at a man-child stating moon-eyed back at her. There’s no connection, no kinship, no nothing.
The rest of the crew, however, is fun. Fee’s hacker, Korina, and Khan’s Rolphare everything Sebastian tries to be but is not. They both have their own shy eccentricities that make them entertaining. Brad Cage is a douche, but there’s raging insecurity evident both in Stuart’s performance and Schweighofer’s shrewd use of flashbacks.
Army of Thieves is a paradox of sorts. It wouldn’t exist without Schweighofer’s Sebastian but would most likely be a better movie without him. An even bigger paradox is that despite how I feel about his performance and his character, I wouldn’t mind if Schweighofer had made a heist movie zombies and Sebastian be damned. He has an intelligent sense of visual storytelling, something that Hatten’s script lacks at times, and a deft comedic touch along with an eye for simplistic visual narrative.
In the beginning, he has a scene in which Sebastian is looking at a row of pictures. Each of them has him, along with his parents, throughout his life. Finally, the last picture, mirroring the previous one, has him holding two urns. It is a quick and effective way to tell us that his parents have died and he misses them. How they died isn’t the point, it’s their absence that he is mourning, a simple moment of a son grieving for his lost parents.
Schweighofer and Bernard Jasper, his DP, add a lovely sort of eccentric visual flair to Army of Thieves. Sleek and, like his safe-cracker character, a light touch. One scene has Sebastian falling asleep watching the news and having a nightmare about the zombie apocalypse reaching Germany. Jasper’s camera frames are surreal, while Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro’s score with a dash of yodeling adds a darkly comic tone to the scene.
Moments like these show Schweighofer’s keen instincts. If only he would show his other cast members the same generosity as opposed to stuffing himself into scenes lest we go too long without seeing his grinning tightly-wound Sebastian. Hatten’s script does him no favors as each safe is accompanied by a long-winded monologue about how Wagner designed the safe and a summary of the Wagner opera that inspired it.
Except, only one safe has any connection between the design mechanics of the locks and the story itself. The first and last safe have no connection, so Schewighofer’s rambling diatribes come off either amusing or annoying, depending on who you are. No prizes for guessing where I land on that spectrum.
The last safe, the Wagner opera’s only significance, is foreshadowing what happens to Sebastian and Gwendoline. Weirdly I admired this bit of theatrical chutzpah and wished there was more of it in the film. There are little moments where Sebastian has nightmares about being eaten by zombies, prophetic visions of his fate in Army of the Dead, and I found theme moments wonderfully grim and eerie.
I suppose if you liked Schwighofer’s Sebastian, you’d like Army of Thieves. However, I prefer Schweighofer, the director, to Schweighofer, the actor.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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