Zack Snyder’s movies are never bland and boring. Everything from Dawn of the Dead (2004) to Justice League (2021) has a beating heart in it. You can agree or disagree with the tone, the messaging, or the handling of characters. But you cannot ignore the intent, passion, and devotion to cinema that he brings to the table with every single project. In Army of the Dead (2021), which is considered by many to be quite uninteresting, has a father-daughter story in it that’s elevated by Snyder’s personal journey and there’s a lot of lore peppered throughout the narrative that makes for an exciting Easter Egg hunt. Sadly, the prequel to it, Army of Thieves (2021), is devoid of Snyder’s passion or heart and lacks any personality whatsoever.

Set six years before the events of Army of the Dead, the Matthias Schweighöfer directorial, written by Shay Hatten, follows Sebastian/Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) as he alternates between his job as a bank teller and an unpopular YouTuber talking about cracking safes. One day, he is requested to attend a safe-cracking competition by a commenter on his channel, which is later revealed to be Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel). Sebastian (yes, his actual name is Sebastian and then he “gets” the name Dieter) is then recruited by Gwendoline into her team to do a series of bank heists while the world deals with the zombie outbreak (yes, the one we see in Army of the Dead). And although they think that no one is looking at them as they are busy with the zombies, Officer Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) is on their tail, waiting for his opportunity to nab them.

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Given the proximity between the release dates of Army of Thieves and Army of the Dead, it’s likely that they were made almost simultaneously. This clearly isn’t a case of Netflix making a prequel because fans really wanted to see more of Dieter. Yes, maybe some people liked him in Army of the Dead. But there was little-to-no buzz about Dieter in particular. He had some comedic moments. His back and forth with Vanderohe (Omar Hardwick) was enjoyable. He did a good enough job of being the audience surrogate and questioning the absurdity of the plot. But is that enough to give him a full-fleshed out backstory? No, very evidently not. Because Army of Thieves adds nothing substantial to the character. It adds something. However, you could’ve gone about your day without knowing about it. That’s how inconsequential this movie is. On top of that, it makes a bunch of rookie mistakes.

ARMY OF THIEVES (L to R) Matthias Schweighöfer as LUDWIG DIETER and Nathalie Emmanuel as GWENDOLINE in ARMY OF THIEVES. Photo Credit: Stanislav Honzik/Netflix © 2021

Let’s break it down. The biggest problem with prequels is that you cannot quite form it around the question, “is this character, who you have already seen alive and well in the original movie, going to survive the prequel movie?” That’s the first mistake in Hatten’s writing. It’s littered with moments where you’re meant to wonder if Dieter is going to live or die. Since you know he’s going to make it, there’s no tension. If there’s no tension, you cannot engage with the plot. Now, the remedy for that would’ve been to focus on a metaphorical loss. The loss of a friendship, the loss of a loved one, or the loss of innocence (in terms of perceiving the world). Hatten tries to do that, to be honest, by crafting bonds between Dieter and Gwendoline, Korina (Ruby O. Fee), Brad (Stuart Martin), and Rolph (Guz Khan). But all that is surface-level and incredibly awkward at best. And that’s the second mistake.

That said, the third and arguably the most grievous mistake is the inconsistent tone. Army of Thieves wants to be, first and foremost, a heist movie. Then it wants to be a romance. Then it wants to be an over-the-top comedy. Then it wants to be a bloody actioner with the characters performing various martial art techniques out of the blue. There’s no doubt that you can have all of these elements and make it work, but the reason why it fails here is because Schweighöfer and Hatten don’t know how to use said elements to complement each other.

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The heists are straightforward while boasting of some good VFX and sound design to show the cracking of the safe. There’s no chemistry between Schweighöfer and Nathalie. The “comedy” oscillates between loud shrieks and long, silent stares. The action is nice but devoid of any stakes whatsoever. And none of this is made digestible by Bernhard Jasper’s cinematography, Alexander Berner’s editing, and Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro’s score.

Army of Thieves. Matthias Schweighofer as Dieter in Army of Thieves. Cr. Stanislav Honzik/ Netflix © 2021

Army of Thieves tries to ape Army of the Dead’s habit of blending its fictional story with mythology by constantly talking about a legendary safe maker, Hans Wagner. He apparently made all three of the safes that Gwendoline and her team is after. And the key to opening them is the mythological story etched on the safe, which is something that Dieter knows like the back of his hand. While Snyder showed a surprising amount of restraint by subtly focusing on his movie’s mysterious components, Army of Thieves keeps on explaining. Yes, the joke is that the exposition is supposed to become funnier and funnier (and probably a little endearing) with every one of Dieter’s rants about the safes. Instead, it just gets more and more annoying. Therefore, by the time the movie gets to the point where it has to bridge the gap between Army of Thieves and Army of the Dead, you are simply exhausted and want Dieter to shut the hell up and get the job done.

At the cost of sounding like a Zack Snyder fanboy, maybe it’s not a good idea to delegate a franchise born out of Snyder’s mind to other people. It’s something about Snyder’s craft or his brand value that makes his work watchable and accessible. We’ve seen what can happen when it’s handed over to someone else (yes, we’re talking about the version of Joss Whedon’s Justice League). We have yet another example here of someone other than Snyder trying to tackle one of his characters and failing. Here’s to hoping that the anime series, Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas (2022) doesn’t disappoint and breathes new life into Snyder’s zombie-based franchise.

Army of Thieves starts streaming on Netflix from 29th October. Stream it here


Army of Thieves Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Army of Thieves Cast – Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ruby O. Fee, Start Martin, Guz Khan, Jonathan Cohen

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