(Army of Thieves premieres on Netflix on October 29th)
Talk about a mixed bag. Army of Thieves, directed by and starring Matthias Schweighöfer is both a prequel and a standalone spin-off from Zack Snyder’s terrible Army of the Dead from last summer. It is, at once, a far better movie and an equally dour waste of potential.
All its downfalls come down to the same thing: there is no reason this needs to have anything to do with Snyder’s film. On its own, Army of Thieves has all the potential for a fun, jaunty comedy-caper through Europe, where a band of misfits tries to make the score of their lives. Led by Schweighöfer, each member of the team is mostly charming, and their chemistry plays off well against Schweighöfer’s nervous energy.
But the moment it’s tied into Snyder’s interminable narrative of the zombie apocalypse, the whole thing begins to sag. Before the action even begins, we know where Schweighöfer’s character ends up, meaning we know also that none of the other cast members show up in the future. Because the ending is already clear, there is no tension to the thrills, and the film adamantly refuses to play up the dramatic irony of their futile efforts.
The first half-hour is promising. Schweighöfer is also a far better and calmer director than Snyder, allowing his archetypical characters room to breathe in their vaudevillian surroundings. An early montage of daily grind does more to endear the lead in less time than it took for Snyder’s zombie opus to barely make a dent. By the time we reach an underground society of safecrackers, I was fully onboard with whatever insanity would come next. Propelled by a terrifically cheesy backstory of unbreakable vaults crafted to resemble the story of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Army of Thieves has a lot going for it.
Which makes the next ninety minutes so disappointing. The mythology behind the vaults falls by the wayside, and a completely pointless subplot involving a bumbling French Interpol agent takes its place. Instead of adding to the plot, it just feels like a contrived effort to introduce a ticking clock to the ride, which only detracts from the fun.
Similarly, because everything needs to tie into Snyder’s film, Army of Thieves loses the personality that made it so endearing in the first place. Do we really need to know how Schweighöfer’s character changed his name to Dieter for the Las Vegas gig? Did anyone even remember what his name was? The film goes from crafting its own mythology to answering questions for another film, and both end up looking worse because of it.
It’s only thanks to game performances from Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ruby O. Fee, and Guz Khan that the film stays afloat. Genre veteran Stuart Martin does his best as a discount Hugh Jackman, but his part is so utterly unconvincing it does him no favors.
There’s a better movie beneath all the excess; one that I wish Schweighöfer could make freely. At his best, both his directing and performance show immense promise. But he falls prey to leaning on grating screeching and copying Snyder’s aggressive slow-motion too often.
Army of Thieves is like the more gifted younger sibling that tries too hard to imitate their more successful elder, even when their own talents could outshine any competition. Maybe whatever Schweighöfer does next will fare better. Especially if he’s allowed to continue exploring the world of the dead.