‘Army of Thieves’ Review: Watch for Heist, No Zombies here
The origin tale of heist artist from Zack Snyder’s undead epic is directed by Matthias Schweighöfer.
Sebastian (Matthias Schweighöfer), the talky, tremendously skilled, but insecure hero of “Army of Thieves,” might have been born if Hans Landa and Danny Ocean had a son. He’s an obsessive amateur safecracker — not a crook, but a kind of savant hobbyist who fantasises about unlocking metal fortress vaults the way a young theatre bug in the Midwest fantasises about making his Broadway debut. He’s a Berlin office teller who hides his mojo behind an earnestly chirpy German accent.
“Army of Thieves” is a precursor to Zack Snyder’s apocalyptic zombie heist thriller “Army of the Dead,” in which Sebastian — then known as Dieter — teams up with a group of thieves in Vegas. Snyder’s film, which came out only five months ago, was a fun, overloaded genre mash-up. The origin tale of a sidekick is told in “Army of Thieves,” directed by Matthias Schweighöfer (from a scenario by Snyder and Shay Hatten). That is not meant as a slight to Schweighhöfer’s Sebastian, who plays a likeable Teutonic overgrown youngster. Nonetheless! The entire underworld action film “Army of Thieves” revolves around this nattering scamp in a three-piece suit.
The film isn’t as invested in the amusing intricacy of the how-to-break-in-and-out-of-a-bank mechanics as it claims to be. Whatever it does, it recognises that the “Ocean’s” films did a superior job. But here’s what makes “Army of Thieves” so amusing, shocking, and, at times, endearing. Sebastian, a romantic nerd with a pop-eyed gaze under his shock of blond hair, like a strangely sincere Malcolm McLaren, is always front and centre, eager and addled, a safecracking artist without a criminal bone in his body (well, maybe one or two), and a romantic nerd with a pop-eyed gaze under his shock of blond hair, is always front and centre. And the supernatural niftiness of seeing him bust open those safes — in particular, a breathtakingly sophisticated set of them devised and built by a German locksmith in homage to Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle’s four operas — is a big element of the picture.
They’re circular wall safes with a touch of old sci-fi awe about them thanks to their exquisite intricacy. The film is most intriguing when Sebastian, who is basically portrayed as the world’s greatest safecracker, stands before one of these contraptions with no knowledge of how to open it and figures out how to do so. Since James Caan in “Thief,” most movie safecrackers have used a combination of technical skill and laser-like weaponry, but Sebastian is just classical enough to use…his ear. Holding his head next to the safe, he twists a knob and hears — almost feels — the rows of gears clicking into place. That may sound cheesy, but the editing of these episodes, as well as the representation of the mechanical events within the safes, is brilliant. “Army of Thieves” has a quicksilver energy in moments like these, evocative of the “Now You See Me” flicks and “The Prestige.” The image of millions of dollars piled within the safes is actually an anticlimax when they finally crack open like the magical industrial machinery they are. It’s all about getting in.
Sebastian is persuaded to join a gang of thieves attempting to break into three of the Ring Cycle safes: the Rheingold, the Valkyrie, and the Siegfried, through an underground safecracking competition (which he loses). We’re told no one knows where they are, but this crew knows exactly where they are: important banks in Paris and Prague, as well as a casino in St. Moritz. During the second robbery, Gwendoline, a jewel thief played by Nathalie Emmanuel (Ramsey from the “Fast and Furious” films), breaks character just long enough to knock the bleeding bejesus out of the four security guards standing in front of the safe at hand. You say to yourself, “This is how they’re going to avoid detection?” despite the fact that she’s a smashingly compelling action heroine. A heist film, as unbelievable as it may seem in real life, is a game that requires us to believe in every act.
Gwendoline looks at our youthful hero with admiration and glints of scorn in her eyes. Her violent boyfriend, self-titled action hero Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), who looks like an angry Hugh Jackman; Korina (Ruby O. Fee), a willowy bohemian hacker; and a getaway driver named Rolph (Guz Khan), who has a winning way with a scowling putdown beneath his dark high hair and long beard.
Sebastian is physically thrown out of the gang and flees the cops by speed-peddling a bike through Prague to what sounds like the throbbing theme for “Run Lola Run 2,” just when things appear to be going swimmingly. But he eventually finds his way back to them — or at least the ones he can trust. “Army of Thieves” is another of Netflix’s bombastically blithe and imaginative action films, this time with a romantic heart. Unless you consider the zombies who appear in a few of dream scenes, there are no zombies in it. However, the film alludes to the impending zombie apocalypse in Vegas, as well as the temptation that awaits there: the Götterdämmerung, the Ring Cycle’s fourth and last safe. You already know what happens next if you’ve seen “Army of the Dead.” However, in comparison to previous film, this one feels like a Batman prequel focused solely on Robin.