Netflix's Heist Thriller 'Army of Thieves' Could Use More Zombies

This prequel to Zack Snyder's 'Army of the Dead' trades the undead for more safe-cracking.

Matthias Schweighofer in Army of Thieves
Stanislav Honzik/ Netflix
Stanislav Honzik/ Netflix

The best moments in Netflix's Army of Thieves, an oddly slight heist-centric prequel to Zack Snyder's gargantuan Vegas bloodbath Army of the Dead, mostly involve the camera sliding through the interlocking mechanisms of various comically elaborate safes that need cracking. In these brief scenes, bits of metal click together, gears grind, and cylinders fall exactly into place. The special effects team and director Matthias Schweighöfer, who also stars as the gifted safecracker Ludwig Dieter, make the inner-workings of these objects, named after German composer Richard Wagner's Ring cycle according to the movie's convoluted backstory, look like miniature steampunk planets. The film presents safecracking as a quasi-romantic, supernatural performance.

These bits of fanciful puzzle-solving make the rest of the movie, a self-consciously derivative riff on staples like Ocean's 11 and The Italian Job, feel a bit uninspired. Did anyone walk out of Army of the Dead, an often overstuffed epic that barreled from one set-piece to the next, with a burning desire to know how exactly Dieter got to America? The main selling point of Snyder's film from earlier this year was seeing the slick conventions of the heist genre get mashed up with the carnage-filled tropes of the zombie genre, specifically by the guy who made 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake. Here, the undead take a back seat. Yes, there's a zombie apocalypse playing out in the background on TV, and the lurching flesh-eaters appear in a couple dream sequences, but they're almost entirely absent from the main plot.

nathalie emmanuel in army of thieves
Stanislav Honzik/ Netflix

Instead, the script, written by Shay Hatten from a story by Hatten and Snyder, follows Dieter on his journey from unpopular YouTube safecracking personality to go-to-guy for a ring of criminals led by Nathalie Emmanuel's charming Gwendoline. Compared to the Army of the Dead squad, the Army of Thieves crew is quite small: There's a muscle-man named Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), who named himself after Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage; a getaway driver named Rolph (Guz Khan); and a tech-savvy hacker named Korina (Ruby O. Fee), who got her start as a thief by pirating a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and posting it online. Collectively, they figure that the world slowly unraveling should give them decent cover for their schemes.

If you didn't notice from those brief character descriptions above, Army of Thieves is peppered with references and allusions to other films and bits of pop culture. (At one point, there's a joke about Zac Efron turning into a zombie.) Almost every character, from the quippy protagonist to the random security guards, takes a second to acknowledge the sheer movie-ness of the situations they find themselves in, a stylistic choice that can be clever at times but grows self-defeating as the movie progresses. Why undercut the bursts of genuine tension by endlessly calling attention to the artifice?

It's a shame because Army of Thieves, like Army of the Dead, does have a handful of effective set-pieces. The safecracking sequences are lively, the central romance has some spark, and, toward the middle of the film, Schweighöfer stages a delightful chase scene on a bicycle that hits the right tone of comic exhilaration. These moments offer a glimpse into the breezy heist movie this could have been. But too many other factors, from the presence of the zombies in the background to the need to tie the story back into the larger Snyder-verse at the end, prevent the film from unlocking its true potential. Most of the fun stays hidden inside a vault. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.