Army of Thieves Review: Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead Universe Gets Second Helpings
It's Ludwig Dieter's time to shine in Matthias Schweighöfer's prequel to Army of the Dead.
Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead universe is expanding, and not in all the ways you expect. The first movie, which involved time loops, robots, aliens, and even copulating zombies, unsurprisingly left viewers with lots of questions, but don’t expect this universe’s sophomore outing to deliver any of the answers you’re looking for. Instead, Army of Thieves is a prequel that largely ignores the zombie-infested hell of Las Vegas, and it’s all the better for it.
Sure, greenlighting a prequel before the first movie had even dropped always seemed a bit presumptuous on Netflix’s part, but the ties that bind the two films are so tenuous that it hardly matters. Director and star Matthias Schweighöfer (who plays master safecracker Ludwig Dieter in both Army films) has made an entertaining heist movie that stands on its own two feet.
Army of Thieves is really an origin story for Ludwig, the expert thief key to the mission in the earlier zombie movie. Six years before Ludwig joins Scott Ward’s expedition into post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, the quirky safecracker is living in Berlin, working a dull office job, and running a YouTube channel nobody watches. His life is a boring routine, but he dreams of conquering the Ring Cycle, a series of legendary bank vaults created by a grand master locksmith that have never been cracked. Ludwig has learned everything there is to know about these mythical vaults and has even put in countless hours of practice into unlocking whatever he can get his hands on. In a flashback, we even learn that while other kids were playing outside, Ludwig was in his room cracking small safes. That someone would dream of becoming a safecracker from such a young age seems a little outlandish but it works when the character is as weird and meticulous as Ludwig Dieter.
Unfortunately, becoming a master safecracker doesn’t seem like an attainable dream for Ludwig — until he meets the mysterious Gwendoline (Game of Thrones‘ Nathalie Emmanuel) who offers him a new gig that will change his life and put him on the path that will eventually lead to Vegas. Along with genius hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), action hero wannabe Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), and constantly hungry driver Rolph (Guz Khan), Ludwig and Gwendoline set out to find the Ring Cycle and steal all the money inside.
Despite its over two-hour runtime, Ludwig and the gang’s romp around Europe feels relatively breezy (although 20 minutes or so should have probably been excised anyway). Yes, it’s a trope-y, by-the-numbers heist movie, and not a particularly original script from Army of the Dead co-writer Shay Hatten, but Thieves sort of knows it and doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it happens to be a pretty funny movie, thanks to Schweighöfer excellent comedic timing and warmer outlook on life in juxtaposition to his much colder comrades, who play things straight despite how increasingly ridiculous their capers get. The movie is light on the gritty (sweaty) tone of its predecessor, and that’s a better fit for a character like Ludwig, who felt like an underdeveloped, comedic relief redshirt in the original but is fully fleshed out here and in his element.
Army of Thieves isn’t just a showcase for Schweighöfer’s talent as a charming comedic actor but also as a promising director. While his predecessor used some…unusual camera techniques for the original, Schweighöfer goes for something much cleaner this time around, including shots of beautiful European vistas that would feel right at home in a James Bond movie. Some of the action sequences are better than others, but Schweighöfer does deliver a few standout moments, such as a bloody fight scene with Emmanuel in the cavernous depths of a heavily guarded bank.
Ultimately, the best parts of Army of Thieves are the performances, from Schweighöfer’s nervous genius to Fee’s sarcastic hipster hacker who also moonlights as a DJ, and Martin’s try-hard gunslinger who often feels like a tongue-in-cheek nod to some of Snyder’s own characters. There’s also Jonathan Cohen as a loser Interpol agent named Delacroix who is always two steps behind Emmanuel’s calculating master criminal. This ensemble is fun to watch, even if some characters feel more fully realized than others. I would have liked to spend a bit more time with sandwich-loving Rolph, who feels more like a henchman than a real member of the team. His intro sequence is cool, though.
As I said, if you’re mostly in it for the zombies, Army of Thieves won’t really scratch that itch. Yes, the movie nods to things going on in Sin City but you won’t be spending any real time there. In many ways, this prequel feels like the start of a spin-off series starring Ludwig and friends, and judging from the quality of this first outing, I’d definitely say more vaults await.
Army of Thieves is out on Netflix on Oct. 29.