But with comments on zombies. (Spoilers for Army of the Dead in bold)
Netflix is an oddity in the sense that they have a habit of cancelling things that really deserve expanding upon while going out and commissioning franchises out of properties that really didn’t need it. For example, did anyone demand Bright receive an anime prequel? No. Does Army of the Dead need to be a franchise? Absolutely not. And yet here we are with the release of Army of Thieves, a prequel to Army of the Dead that came out in May of this year. Can you believe it just came out this year?
I gave Army of the Dead a D rating on the grounds that it was stupid and not in a good way. The plot was completely nonsensical, the political commentary blunt and equally stupid, the green screening of Tig Notaro looked terrible, and the big twist of Bly Tanaka secretly being after an alpha zombie head rather than the bank vault rendered the whole plot meaningless and technically done about fifteen minutes after they enter the quarantine. I actually had more hopes for Army of Thieves knowing that this film is supposed to be a simple heist movie, and furthermore Zack Snyder had nothing to do with it. Because Zack Snyder ruins a lot of things.
Army of Thieves takes place well before the events of Army of the Dead, focusing on safe-cracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) from the first movie as he lives his boring life as a boring banker in a boring bank in boring Potsdam while some zombie crap happens around the world. Ludwig has a lifelong obsession with cracking safes, and produces YouTube videos talking about safes and their histories for a channel that nobody views until one day he receives an invitation to an underground safecracking competition. Those things exist in this world, and are only slightly more ridiculous than the underground Countdown plot from IT Crowd. Full on cheering crowds of people waving money. After winning the competition easily, Ludwig is brought on board with a diverse crew of thieves with an offer; help them plunder the three legendary safes.
The three safes were created by a man named Hans Wagner, and are owned by billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), our first direct character reference to the prior movie. You may also remember that the fourth vault is the one he opens in Army of the Dead. What a small world. The problem is that the vaults will be taken to a secret location to be decommissioned within the next week, meaning Dieter’s window to achieve his dream is closing. The gang of five make their plan and execute it, Ocean’s Eleven style. Meanwhile the gang is being tracked by Interpol officer Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) who wants to arrest them on account of him being a cop.
Characters in the film are pretty good. Ludwig of course is the same constantly nervous, opera-listening dork who screams and runs like a little girl from the first movie. Gwendoline Starr (Nathalie Emmanuel) recruits Ludwig and plays the sexy femme fatale ass kicking spy of the movie. Opposite her is Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), a caricature of a real life action star whose name is literally an amalgamation of Bradd Pitt and Nicolas Cage. Korina Dominguez (Ruby O. Fee) plays the hacker while Rolph (Guz Khan) is the getaway driver. Matthias Schweighöfer also directs the movie, and you can kinda tell that it’s more of a passion project for him than Army of the Dead ever was for Zack Snyder. Schweighöfer seemed to enjoy playing his character far more than anyone else on the Army of the Dead set. Especially Tig Notaro, who does not look like she could give less of a shit.
One comment you’re bound to see in film critic reviews is that Army of Thieves is a film we didn’t “need,” an utterly moronic concept when we don’t need any film at all. What this means is the critic considers watching a movie and writing a review of it too demanding and this is their way of complaining without looking too privileged about their effortless job. If you look at Army of Thieves as a film that exists within its own world, it’s actually an interesting heist movie. Even as a prequel telling a story nobody particularly begged to be told, it stands well. The two hour film is effectively three consecutive heists, but each one is varied enough from the last that it never feels repetitive or that the actors are just going through the motions. Outside of Dieter’s opera-filled unlocking sequences that is.
Ultimately Army of Thieves advertises itself more to the Oceans Eleven style of film than Army of the Dead which tried to do both a bank heist and a zombie film and fell short on both premises. The characters feel more interesting this time around and while the movie is slow to get started it does ramp up in the second half. Army of the Dead by comparison had a big cast with a lot of weak links in terms of development, while Army of Thieves feels like it has more prominent personalities for everyone including the cops and even the random bank employees we see. There’s a few links to the main film, as well as a couple zombie references here and there, but it doesn’t feel overt and the film never tries to trick us.
But it’s much longer than it needed to be at two hours and eight minutes. It was an odd decision to shift from predominately zombie movie with some bank heisting, to a complete bank heist movie with no zombie action and focusing on a seemingly minor side character. I get that Netflix really wants to milk the characters from the first film for all they’re worth, but I’m not sure how many remember the characters now let alone when the series eventually comes out.