‘Army of Thieves’ Is an Entertaining ‘Army of the Dead’ Prequel That Nobody Asked For

Not only is Netflix not wasting any time in releasing new content on a weekly basis, now it’s rushing into doing prequels. Just five months after releasing “Army of the Dead,” Zack Snyder’s opus of zombie warfare in an apocalyptic Las Vegas, now the studio is dropping “Army of Thieves,” about all that came before. Aside from the rapid timing, the real surprise is how this is actually not a bad movie. As an action escape it stands on its own, to the point where it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the Snyder movie or ever plan to afterwards. In fact, there are barely any zombies in this movie. What it does have are good actors convincingly doing absurd and quirky characters, within the usual plot about cracking open impenetrable safes.

The focus shifts to Ludwig Dieter, the snobby German locksmith who helps Dave Bautista and a gang of mercenaries crack open a big safe in Sin City. Matthias Schweighöfer, who plays Ludwig, is also directing. He opens the movie in operatic fashion as Ludwig, who we learn is actually named Sebastian, recounts how a great German locksmith, Hans Wagner, built a series of four safes inspired by the four parts of Richard Wagner’s great “Ring Cycle” opera. So great are these safes that only three have definite whereabouts. Sebastian explains all this on a YouTube channel devoted to the secrets of cracking safes. The channel catches the attention of Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), a professional thief who meets with Sebastian and offers him a chance at finding the Wagner safes and tinkering with their beloved combination locks. Sebastian jumps on the opportunity and meets the rest of Gwendoline’s team, which includes tech head Korina (Ruby O. Fee), driver Rolph (Guz Khan), and wannabe action hero Brad Cage (Stuart Martin). Not as tough or handy with weapons, Sebastian tags along for the wild ride that follows. On the news there are also reports of a zombie outbreak in the United States.

“Army of Thieves” is almost a curious experiment. It is being released so soon after the Snyder film and approaches its world with a different tone. As a director Schweighöfer, and surely with a smaller budget, doesn’t go for the kind of overly stylized, comic book panel images Snyder is famous for, except for neon lettering that announces every new European city where the plot shifts to. He films the screenplay by Shay Hatten as a tight heist adventure where the oddball characters are more fun to follow than the plot. There are many winks to past action films in this escapist bend. Brandon Cage named himself after Nicolas Cage, and we see him as a kid in a flashback watching “Con Air” on TV. The heist crew is clichés of every other movie heist crew, but for fans of this kind of movie the actors are perfectly cast and enjoyable to watch. Ruby O. Fee is a bubble gum-popping toughie who nonchalantly asks Sebastian to make out, while Brandon is the muscle-flexing macho man who gets suspicious of the way Sebastian looks at Gwendoline. You also can’t have a heist movie with an obsessed cop. Here that role goes to Jonathan Cohen as Delacroix, a French detective determined to catch the gang, played with the necessary short temper. Schweighöfer isn’t as cocky as in “Army of the Dead,” playing Sebastian as a refined type out of place with these rough criminals. 

As a director Schweighöfer deserves some credit for trying to make a rather classy version of what would otherwise be some throwaway Netflix production, of the kind the studio churns out now every week. He gives the characters more time than the action scenes. The zombie apocalypse taking place in faraway Las Vegas appears only on TV and occasionally in Sebastian’s dreams, like those early days of Covid-19 when the west was blissfully unaware what was starting in Asia would soon hit us full throttle. Who knows if that was the allegory Schweighöfer was going for. The scenes involving the heists and Sebastian having to speedily crack safes amid shootouts and chases have an extra, goofy grandiosity since with every safe Sebastian solemnly narrates the plot of whatever Wagner cycle they’re on. Non-opera fans might be inspired to go grab a recording of Wagner’s magnum opus afterwards (the version conducted by Sir Georg Solti remains the best). Zack Snyder is still producing, so this might all be a big wink at his own style, long admired and mocked for being so operatic when dealing with superheroes. There’s also some heart injected into the proceedings when Sebastian develops a big crush on Gwendoline. Schweighöfer truly gives it a go at delivering sincere, heartfelt acting with Nathalie Emmanuel. The material almost doesn’t deserve them. He does keep Sebastian’s yelps from “Army of the Dead” every time a dangerous surprise happens.

“Army of Thieves” is not a great film or even great trash. It’s a perfectly fine heist movie you can kill a bored afternoon with, if Netflix is your preferred form of banishing boredom that is. “Army of the Dead” was not the kind of movie that left lingering questions that would leave viewers hungry for a prequel. But for whatever reason, Netflix has given us one and as a stand-alone popcorn movie it is better than longer, truly wasteful Netflix action romps like “The Last Days of American Crime” and “Extraction.” This one is up there with “Project Power” as self-aware entertainment not without some style. At least it takes the time to discuss why great opera is timeless. Lesser movies of this type can’t even take the time to explain why the characters have any reason to exist.

Army of Thieves” begins streaming Oct. 29 on Netflix.