Army of Thieves is tasked with taking a step back in time before the events of Army of the Dead. As Dead served as an introduction to Zack Snyder's movie universe on Netflix (which is home to a zombie-filled Las Vegas), Thieves adds new layers to the original film's story through the eyes of one of its standout characters, Ludwig Deiter. Snyder directed the original zombie thriller but hopped out of the chair for the prequel and parked as a producer as Matthias Schweighöfer both stars in and directs Netflix's latest heist flick, drumming up one of its most exciting ventures of the year.
Army of Thieves is not the zombie bloodbath that came before it. While the zombie outbreak has a small presence in the film, Thieves starts out with Schweighöfer's silly, young character sharing his safe-cracking ambitions with a YouTube audience that hits record high view counts when one person finally sees his videos. Schweighöfer's Deiter was hailed as the world's best safe cracker in Army of the Dead, earning him a spot on the roster when a team attempted to get into a safe below a casino. Thieves sets out to explain why he is such a perfect fit and just how the journey in Dead continues a legendary journey for the character.
Schweighöfer impressively balances starring in the film and directing it, cracking the filmmaking code on all fronts. He injects a wonderful shot of life to the film with a high-energy, often hilarious performance which can also be throttled down for more intimate and emotional beats, on a dime. Taking in his energized performance with the knowledge of his mind also having crafted every directorial beat makes Thieves a pretty astonishing feat for the German actor and director who should be coming upon a worldwide career renaissance, if that sort of path is of interest to the 40-year-old filmmaker.
The cast surrounding Schweighöfer is very well-rounded. Nathalie Emmanuel steps in as Gwendoline, a mysterious figure who enlists Schweighöfer's character to her team after demanding he pass a series of tests that confirm his worthiness. Emmanuel brings a calm and, yet, very cool presence to the film that is only complimented by the tremendous chemistry between the two leads. The cherry on top is the fact that Emmanuel gets in on the action, serving as one of the film's most charismatic and capable characters who can beat down an opponent whenever necessary and intriguingly knows when to hold back for emotional or moral reasons. It's great to see Emmanuel in a role allows her to flex a ton of her talent and charisma, even more than we've seen from her in Game of Thrones or the Fast & Furious movies. Between how likable Emmanuel and Schweighöfer's characters are, Thieves is also out to steal your heart, while also rooting for them to become a thing of their own.
Guz Khan, Stuart Martin, and Ruby O. Fee all have their moments in the sun, as well. Khan delivers as the comedic and stylish getaway driver. Fee portrays the smart hacker character, bringing the confidence and sarcasm necessary for the role. Martin checks in as the most ridiculous character of them all, Brad Cage. Brad wants to be an action hero to the likes of the most cliché American movie stars and Martin brings him to life with hilarious form but also capitalizes on moments which are meant to draw out intense reactions from the audiences.
While all of the main cast really do their jobs quite well, it is Schweighöfer who deserves the true praise for his double effort here. Army of Thieves is shot beautifully, making great use of European locations both in cities and sprawling, outdoor landscapes. Action sequences march to a tremendous beat, comedy lands with great timing, and the heist movie serves as just that with an interesting combination of romantic comedy themes and action-heist elements. Not to mention, the fun plays on small details that only big fans of Army of the Dead will catch.
Schweighöfer and Emmanuel's characters have a very fun-to-follow relationship which, in itself, sets the group up to have moments of being torn apart. The inherent drama is a great passenger in a car driven by the series of heists, all of which are pulled off and delivered to the audience in unique ways with surprising payoffs and terrific style. Army of Thieves is more of heist movie than the film it precedes, tripling the vaults and going all in on stylish delivery. Not to mention, the Thieves score by Steve Mazzaro and Hans Zimmer is brilliant. The whole film leaves you wanting to spend another number of hours with these characters. It's great to see Snyder's touches and world are present in the film as he seems to have a sprawling, ambitious plan for this cinematic world. It's also great to see him giving Schweighöfer an opportunity to expand the world through his own lens, honoring Snyder's Army of the Dead work (and always impressive visual styles) while simultaneously maintaining the presence of his own style and voice.
The truth is, audiences can watch Army of Thieves and enjoy it whether they've seen Army of the Dead or not. Thieves only makes Dead better, yet they're drastically different films. Thieves borrows a lot more of Schweighöfer's voice, replacing a lot of the violence with funny and often heartfelt moments. Snyder's universe still has its welcome influences, as a few sequences in the film see zombies playing a role in the plot and some of the deeper cut questions from Army of the Dead possibly becoming a factor. The big hope here, though, is that it will all pay off with a full explanation somewhere down the line. Netflix's Army of the Dead universe now has two dramatically different heist films in it with seeds planted for big questions. So far, they are more than welcome as both films have been hugely entertaining.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars