Film Review – Army of Thieves
Army Of Thieves
Imagine my surprise when – a mere five months after the Netflix release of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021) – that a prequel, Army of Thieves (2021) would already be completed and ready to go. Army of the Dead didn’t exactly light the world on fire in terms of its cultural impact. It’s not based on an established property that would necessitate multiple films being made (ala Lord of the Rings). Apparently, the powers that be have decided that this material can be expanded into a franchise, with a sequel and television show currently in various stages of development. It would seem the “Army” series isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Army of Thieves follows Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer, who also directs), the charismatic German safe cracker from the first film. In a zombie flick rife with bland, macho tough guys, Dieter was one of the few memorable characters, although I’m not sure he translates well into the center position. Here, he is named Sebastian (for reasons I will not get into). While Schweighöfer’s nebbish, quirky performance worked in a supporting role, as the lead character it plays a somewhat forced. Sebastian is a collection of yelps, ticks, and wide-eyed befuddlement that it’s near exhausting. Sure, he has a heart of gold, but the narrative never stops reminding us of that. Given that he is surrounded by characters that have little to no dimension themselves only works to amplify Sebastian’s broad personality.
The story takes place a few years prior to Army of the Dead, with the zombie apocalypse only referenced in news reports and dream sequences. Sebastian is a mild-mannered bank teller with a deep enthusiasm for safe cracking. He releases a YouTube video detailing his love for a series of safes intricately designed by one of his heroes. The video is seen by Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), who recruits Sebastian to join her team of international thieves. Why would Gwendoline want Sebastian onboard? Because their latest mission is to steal money from the very safes Sebastian covered in his video. How convenient!
Things settle into a mundane (and very long) progression, as Gwendoline, Sebastian, and the rest of the team travel all around Europe locating the safes. The screenplay (Shay Hatten) repeats these sequences over and over with little variation, causing the tension to remain at neutral. Bernhard Jasper’s cinematography also recycles its images again and again, dragging the narrative down instead of ramping it up. As the three other members (Ruby O. Fee, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan) cause a distraction, Gwendoline and Sebastian make their way to the safe, with Sebastian following the same routine to unlock it. CGI takes us inside the innerworkings of the safe, seeing the gears and switches move as Sebastian listens to every click and snap from the outside.
Sebastian’s love for safe design is the most interesting thing about him. To him, solving the riddle of the safes is more rewarding than the money stored inside. When he talks about the history of each safe, it’s like he is describing an old painting or Greek sculpture. These bits are more engaging than the heists themselves. Early on, Sebastian gets invited to compete in an underground safecracking competition, which plays like a locksmith’s version of Fight Club (1999). These elements work the best, because they entice questions about the larger world of safe cracking and lock picking. How long has this competition been around? Who established it? Is there an unspoken code between the competitors? Is there a deeper history here? We get a quick look behind the curtain and then get pulled out just as our interests are piqued.
Because the plot and characters are thin, Schweighöfer’s direction tries to counterbalance it with a hyperactive energy. The few action scenes we get are weighed down with herky jerky camera movements and quick cut editing, obstructing our view of what is happening. During one mission that leaves our heroes running from authorities, the visuals are so unstable that it looked like it was taking place during an earthquake. When Sebastian is introduced to each of the other members, on screen text show their names in big, splashy, unnecessarily over the top graphics. This is all style with no substance – flash to cover the hollowness underneath. The end feels anti-climactic, stopping on a downbeat more focused on lining up with Army of the Dead as opposed to a complete, satisfying conclusion.
Army of Thieves has a lot of potential that goes unfulfilled. It riffs on other, better team-oriented heist movies. Nathalie Emmanuel, despite playing a leader role here, reminds us that she is firmly placed in the similar and far more successful Fast & Furious franchise. The film wants to be Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and The Italian Job (1969) but isn’t nearly as smart, creative, or entertaining. Schweighöfer tries his best to have his charisma make up for a lot of the shortcomings, but that is a tall task. I suppose this is a decent form of escapism for two hours, I just wish it was a little bit more than that.