A humble, nerdy bank teller with a secret passion for safecracking finds himself taking on the heist challenge of a lifetime in Army of Thieves, a prequel to Zack Snyder’s hugely entertaining Army of the Dead, which debuted earlier this year on Netflix. Army of Thieves is light on zombies but brings the same sly humor and thrilling action to its story, making it a beautifully crafted entertaining romp in its own right.
(Spoilers for Army of the Dead below. Mostly mild spoilers for Army of Thieves, but if you haven’t seen its predecessor, there is one major spoiler at the end. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)
Army of the Dead followed Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and his team of mercenaries as they ventured into zombie-infested Las Vegas to recover millions in cash from a casino vault. Brain-munching carnage ensued. In addition to Tig Notaro’s delightfully cynical pilot and Samantha Win’s martial arts fireworks, viewers loved the dynamic between zombie-killing-machine Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and the brilliantly nerdy, high-strung German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Not only did the two forge a believable (albeit reluctant) bond, Dieter’s well-timed high-pitched screams whenever a zombie charged was one of several running gags. So naturally Dieter got his own prequel. And you know what? Schweighöfer’s standout character deserved one.
Army of Thieves was already in post-production when Army of the Dead debuted, having wrapped filming in Germany in December. Schweighöfer both stars and directs, and while the film is not a bona fide zombie film, it is set in the early stages of the zombie outbreak that makes up the opening backstory montage of Army of the Dead. The plot “takes place in a world where these zombies exist in America and it’s causing instability in the banking institutions,” Deborah Snyder told Indie Wire. “They’re moving money around, so it’s the perfect opportunity for a heist.”
As the film opens, we learn that Dieter was once Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert, a nervous, nebbishy bank teller in Potsdam with a lifelong fascination with safecracking. He follows the same boring daily routine and occasionally posts videos about his passion to YouTube, all of which garner exactly zero views. But then he decides to do a video about a legendary quartet of supposedly uncrackable safes modeled on Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle: the Rhinegold, the Valkyrie, the Siegfried, and the Götterdämmerung. The man who made them—a locksmith named Hans Wagner (Christian Steyer)—did so after losing his wife and child, and legend holds that when he was finished, he locked himself inside one of his own safes to die.
That video draws the attention of master their Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel). She’s looking for a safecracker who might be capable of cracking Wagner’s impossible safes and decides Sebastian is the man for the job, despite his eccentricities. The rest of the team includes “master hacker” Korina (Ruby O. Fee), getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan), and the muscular Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), “our very own live action hero.” Sebastian sums everything up nicely: “So is it like in a movie film where each one of us has a different skill set and only working together that we can pull off that which needs the pulling off?” Yes, exactly like that.
The Ring Cycle safes are currently owned by billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who set the events of Army of the Dead in motion. The Rhinegold is in Paris, the Valkyrie is in Prague, the Siegfried is in St. Moritz, and the Götterdämmerung is rumored to be in Las Vegas. Complicating matters is an intrepid Interpol agent named Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), who has a personal vendetta against Brad Cage—in particular, for shooting him in the derriere on a previous job. Noemie Nakai plays Delacroix’s Interpol colleague Beatrix, who tries to rein in his worst vengeful impulses.
Schweighöfer proves to be as equally skilled a director as he is an actor, clearly drawing on classic heist films like Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job for inspiration. There are sly nods to the tropes of the genre throughout. Apart from a couple of lagging moments, the pacing is brisk, and the focus on a series of increasingly difficult heists ensures that the stakes (and suspense) keep rising. Most of the characters are, admittedly, not especially well developed, apart from Gwendoline and Sebastian, but they are colorfully distinctive and help keep the tone light and lively.
Wagner’s epic opera most definitely informs the plot, but Schweighöfer wisely avoids being too obvious with the parallels. Rather, those elements are woven into Sebastian’s emotional development over the course of the film, as he gains a deeper understanding of why Hans Wagner created these magnificent safes out of his grief in the first place and named them after the Ring cycle.
(WARNING: A major spoiler for Army of the Dead is below, with direct bearing on Army of Thieves.)
Schweighöfer’s deft performance plays up the character’s goofy sweetness and social awkwardness—the high-pitched screams remain a trademark—but also showcases the qualities that set him apart from other skilled safecrackers: a poetic nature, surprising moments of bravery, and a powerful streak of personal altruism. This is a film that celebrates characters who honor artistry above filthy lucre. Sebastian is driven by the challenge of the quest. Any money is a side benefit.
But what about the zombies, you might well ask? Well, zombies do appear, but only in news accounts playing on TV screens in the background—and in Sebastian’s increasingly vivid nightmares. Gwendoline dismisses them as just another side effect of his naturally high-strung, nervous nature, but Korina speculates that the dreams could be prophetic. Anyone who has seen Army of the Dead knows that Korina’s interpretation is more accurate; the nightmares are a narrative foreshadowing of Sebastian’s ultimate fate.
We know that Sebastian will become Ludwig Dieter and flee to America. We know that he will end up being recruited by Scott Ward for one last heist: cracking the elusive Götterdämmerung, which (as Gwendoline guessed correctly) is located in the bowels of a Las Vegas casino now under the control of a horde of zombies. And we know that he will succeed in his quest to crack it.
Alas, he does so at the cost of his life, because (sniff—give me a moment) he sacrifices himself to save his new buddy Vanderohe from zombies. Somehow, knowing Sebastian’s ultimate fate makes Army of Thieves all the more poignant. Shine on, you strange, beautiful nerd.
Zack Snyder is already working on fleshing out the franchise. There will be an animated series landing next year that Snyder has said will explain where the original zombies came from. There is also an Army of the Dead sequel, Planet of the Dead, in development. Snyder has been vague on details but told Variety that “time loops,” “portals,” and “doorways to other realms” will feature prominently. Does that mean we might see the return of Sebastian/Dieter, Scott Ward, and the rest of the Army of the Dead crew in some alternate incarnation? Signs point to “maybe.” Even if we don’t, Army of Thieves gives Ludwig Dieter the hero’s sendoff he deserves.
Listing image by Netflix