Ludwig Dieter, the hilariously peculiar German safecracker from Army of the Dead, gets a winning origin story in the nascent stage of the zombie apocalypse. Army of Thieves is a heist themed prequel that’s thankfully more action-comedy than blood and guts. Where a gang of intrepid criminals recruit a talented novice for a near impossible series of robberies. Matthias Schweighöfer displays significant talent in front and behind the camera. He’s a charming and humorous protagonist while directing a fun, breezy film.
Army of Thieves opens in Potsdam, Germany with uber geek Sebastian (Matthias Schweighöfer) posting a YouTube video about Hans Wagner; a celebrated vault designer that decades ago crafted four impenetrable safes called the Ring Cycle. Sebastian extolls his virtues as a superb safecracker. But is disheartened when the video receives no views or likes. He goes on with his lonely, ordinary routine as a faceless customer service rep.
Sebastian is stunned to receive a message on his video post. A mysterious invite to a secret safecracking competition in Berlin gives him a chance to truly test his skills. He notices a beautiful woman watching his impressive display. She introduces herself the next morning during a banana muffin at his local café. Gwendoline Starr (Nathalie Emmanuel), globally wanted by Interpol, has the inside track on the locations of the Ring Cycle safes. The alarming virus outbreak in Las Vegas has rattled authorities. Now is the time to pull off a set of heists for the ages. Does Sebastian want to languish at his boring job? Or is he ready to try something extraordinarily dangerous and risky?
Army of Thieves is surprisingly funny and interesting. I honestly expected the film to have a bigger zombie element. The undead show up briefly in background newscasts and a few dream sequences. The heists take center stage with the socially awkward Sebastian trying his best to fit into Gwen’s crew. His efforts transitioning to an elite criminal safecracker does not go smoothly. There are several laugh out loud moments as Gwen and the gang try to accommodate Sebastian’s bizarre routines.
Matthias Schweighöfer, renowned in German cinema and television, does a banner job on two fronts. He’s infectiously likable as Sebastian. Schweighöfer nails the nervous energy of the character without becoming annoying. You end up rooting for Sebastian as the story progresses. The film is shot in a dynamic style with slick visual effects. Schweighöfer uses creative 3D titles and introductions for the characters and settings. We also see the locking mechanisms inside the safes as Sebastian gingerly rotates the dials. Playing composer Richard Wagner’s soaring orchestral themes on his phone to get in the safecracking mood.
Army of Thieves is a completely different animal than Army of the Dead. The action scenes are solid, but the film truly stands out as a relationship comedy. Matthias Schweighöfer has a different artistic vision than Zack Snyder. His take before the zombie onslaught is well realized. My only serious gripe concerns the length. The film runs two hours and ten minutes when it could have easily been shorter. It moves at a decent pace, but could have been brisker with a shorter edit. The Army of the Dead universe is off to a great start with two fantastic entries. Army of Thieves is a production of The Stone Quarry and Pantaleon Films. It will premiere exclusively October 29th on Netflix.