Review: Army Of Thieves

Army Of Thieves

Trailer

OK, maybe a little bit of grimdark.

A little-known expert on safecracking who limits himself to making unwatched Youtube videos on the topic, Sebastian (Matthias Schweighofer) lives a mundane life as a bank-teller even as a zombie apocalypse overtakes Las Vegas. But when he is contacted by the mysterious Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) and given the chance to partake in a quest to find and crack into three legendary safes, Sebastian is set on a cross-continental path of crime, excitement and betrayal.

Is this the fastest that a prequel to a fairly big-budget property has ever been made and released? It feels like no time at all since I watched the diverting if not especially great, Army Of The Dead, and now one of the better elements of that film in the form of Schweighofer’s Ludwig Dieter (here going by the characters actual name) has his own origin story. On the surface this seems like a fairly desperate ploy to milk the property for all it is worth before it vanishes completely from the zeitgeist. So I was surprised to actually enjoy Army Of Thieves a fair amount.

A lot of that comes down to Schweighofer. He clearly loves the Sebastian character, and didn’t need much convincing to reprise it. The man is able to imbue the man with what I can only describe as an awkward charm that is readily endearing, and much in the same way that he did in Army Of The Dead. I suppose the archetype of the somewhat bumbling European with some slight problems in his English is a well-worn enough one, but I liked what Schweighofer, also directing, does with the character here. Sebastian is a down-in-the-dumps sadsack without being creepy, he’s a curious romantic without being insufferable, he’s an expert in his field without being a genius elitist. In other words he’s just very likable, one of the best audience surrogates I have seen for a long time, and the perfect person to get swept long into this cross-European crime spree.

Said crime spree is a fun, engaging thing. Schweighofer has a ball in showcasing the three safes Sebastian has to crack, all based on different parts of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and with each heist being just a little bit different from the one before. His obsession with the safes, and his innate understanding of how they work, can sometimes stretch the bounds of believablility, but I think with the zombie apocalypse happening in the background of everything you have to be willing to play fast and loose with your suspension of disbelief. In-between the capers we get Sebastian’s burgeoning relationship with Gwendoline, and this stuff can be a bit trite, but is otherwise dismissable enough fare for an action-comedy (where the action is mostly tumblers falling into place). There are times when you would wish that the film would lean in a bit harder on the fantastical elements that screenwriter Shay Hattem, who penned Army Of The Dead and the last John Wick movie, comes up with, like an underground tourney of safecrackers that Sebastian stumbles into (his arch-rival is an imposing guy named Neo), but Army Of Thieves is more comfortable in a more straightforward lane.

It’s in much of the rest of the film that Army Of Thieves starts to show its limits. For one thing it is just a bit too long, largely because it showcases three separate heists instead of just one, with plenty of material in-between each caper. It lacks the momentum for such a structure, and could do with some significant trimming in its last act. Other problems include the supporting cast who, with the exception of Emmanuel’s Gwendoline, are pretty much paper-thin representations of humanity for Sebastian to awkwardly interact with. You’ve got the hacker girl (Ruby O. Fee, who I last saw in a series of garish sex scenes in Polar), the driver (Guz Khan, who looks and sounds like he thinks he’s in a Guy Ritchie film) and the tough guy (Stuart Martin, a remarkably bland semi-antagonist force), but they are never really able to impact on the film properly. Even worse is Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) an Interpol agent after the gang, whose Javert-like obsession feels very tired, and given the film has other ready-made villains within the gang itself, very unnecessary.

This isn’t Schweighofer’s first time behind the camera – he’s directed several German-language comedy movies and and a German-language action TV series – but it is probably the most high-profile thing that he has directed. There are a few nods to the style of Zack Snyder, but the film could not be easily mistaken for his work, indulging brightness and refraining from gore. The director does fine, even better than fine on a few occasions when he opts to ignore the cliches of the sub-genre (some characters actually go so far as to deliberate mock the idea of how heists are done in those movies). Hence why we get in-depth looks at the interior workings of safes as Sebastian cracks them, over flashy costumes and sleekily accomplished subterfuge elsewhere in the target building. The supporting cast suffers for this visual focus sometimes, but I think it does mark Army Of Thieves out, in a good way. Other than that it is visually the kind of jet-setting film where you feel the director is mostly replicating Bond or Bourne movies in terms of how exotic locales are framed in wide shot but things are substantially more grungey when we get down to brass tacks. I should note too that I think Schweighofer has a weakness with more traditional action, with a chase scene that takes place at the end of Act Two very clunky in composition and not terribly satisfying.

This is a film very much unlike Army Of The Dead, which overloaded itself with so many characters that any attempt at nuance was bound to be lost. Army Of Thieves is a bit more singular, indeed it is probably too singular, with its more limited supporting cast making much the same lack of impact as all of the people who showed up in its predecessor. But it makes a game attempt at making up for this with the strength of the central performance, and its efforts to craft a fun, engaging series of bank heists for us to follow along with. It’s nothing enormously special, and probably won’t have the same impact on its sub-genre as Army Of The Dead had on its. But, on the basis of this, Schweighofer is a director that I probably wouldn’t mind checking out again, perhaps in less quasi-blockbuster surrounds. Partially recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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