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The zombie apocalypse is in its infancy, glimpsed only in news reports from far-off Nevada in Netflix’s prequel to Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead. One of the most amusing characters of that trashtastic Las Vegas blood feast was German safecracker Ludwig Dieter, played by Matthias Schweighöfer with a mix of smart-alecky skill and squealing skittishness that frequently prompted the question “Gay or European?” The answer is provided in a shy romantic thread in Army of Thieves, which brings back Schweighöfer, this time as both director and star in a heist adventure tackling three of the most impenetrable vaults ever built.
Scripted by Army of the Dead co-writer Shay Hatten from a story he developed with Snyder, the prequel is a triumph-of-the-nerd caper tracing how the awkward bank teller eventually known as Ludwig got his start in high-stakes crime. The creative team acknowledges a debt to The Italian Job, but while the new film marks a distinct shift in genres, it also interlocks with its predecessor in sufficient ways to make it identifiably part of the same burgeoning franchise. (A sequel to the first film is in the works, along with an anime prequel series, called Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas.) A couple of unbilled cameos here help tie the knot.
Army of Thieves
Schweighöfer, who has extensive credits both onscreen and behind the camera with commercial hits in Germany, shows a scrupulous attention to detail and an eye for the architectural and design quirks of Old World Europe that, in the early scenes of his English-language directing debut, occasionally recalls Wes Anderson. His fascination with the intricate mechanisms of high-security safes — the complex web of internal locks, cogs, pins and tumblers, breathing like live organisms — at times even has echoes of Martin Scorsese’s clockwork studies in Hugo. The storytelling overall is less sophisticated, leaning a little too often on strained humor, but this is a slick, enjoyably playful entertainment.
Ludwig, or Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert, according to his mouthful of a birth name, has zero YouTube followers but diligently posts videos on his passion for safecracking. He opens the film with a fairy-tale “Once Upon a Time” account of Hans Wagner (Christian Steyer), a Munich locksmith devastated by the tragic death of his wife and child. While still deep in mourning, Hans threw himself into his magnum opus, the construction of four safes inspired by each of the operas in The Ring Cycle, by his namesake, Richard Wagner.
The largest and most challenging of those projects, the Götterdämmerung, was the mega-vault targeted by the motley crew in Army of the Dead, located in a Sin City casino basement in the heart of the zombie infestation. The remaining three safes, the Rheingold, the Valkyrie and the Siegfried, are believed to be in Europe, exact whereabouts unknown. Or at least they are until internationally wanted jewel thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) recruits Sebastian to complete her heist team, her sleuthing having tracked the safes’ locations to Paris, Prague and St. Moritz, Switzerland, respectively.
Much of the early humor comes from the numbing dreariness of Sebastian’s existence, enduring the complaints of crabby bank customers and eating his sad sandwich alone every day on his lunch break in a cobblestoned alley in the rain. So when Gwendoline dangles a taste of adventure and excitement, after anonymously testing his skills in an underground safecracking contest in Berlin, he’s quick to bite. “A life less ordinary,” she calls it, which appeals to the part of Sebastian that so desperately wants to be cool.
He meets the rest of the crew — ace hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and “real live action hero” Brad Cage (Stuart Martin) — and learns that the degree of difficulty will increase with each safe. Given international security concerns over the zombie outbreak in America, the safes are to be removed and decommissioned, and they have only four days to crack them.
There’s a pleasurably zippy pace to the storytelling, with editor Alexander Berner employing lots of wipes, smash cuts, screen graphics and Snyder-esque slow and fast motion to shake up the rhythm, along with a jaunty score by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro that turns suspenseful in appropriate moments. Various movements of the Wagner opera are used diegetically, played by Sebastian on his cellphone as he works on each safe.
Schweighöfer finds droll notes of comedy in Sebastian’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Norse mythology that inspired Richard Wagner, which he insists on explaining to Gwendoline as he manipulates the dials, his caress of each safe like an act of love. He gradually reveals his own nervous romantic feelings for Gwendoline, which are complicated by rivalry with double-crossing Brad, a preening jerk whose assumed name is an amalgam of his Hollywood idols, Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage — one of a handful of meta references to movie lore.
The team’s race against the clock and efforts to evade detection get trickier once Interpol picks up their scent in a long-running investigation led by French officials Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) and Beatrix (Noémie Nakai).
The lively dynamic of the early action loses some energy once the heist crew is fractured, and screenwriter Hatten’s attempts to incorporate some of the themes of Wagner, such as the corrupting influence of money and power, feel undercooked. The movie functions best as a breezy criminal lark. The supporting characters also could have used more dimension, with the initial promise of Korina and Rolph, in particular, somewhat dissipating once the focus tightens on Sebastian and Gwendoline.
In the latter role, Emmanuel (Missandei on Game of Thrones) brings a confident allure and comports herself convincingly in some ass-kicking fight scenes. Gwendoline is a rich girl with a rebellious streak, who’s more interested in becoming a crime-world legend than she is in the money. Even if their chemistry could be stronger, the tentative attraction between her and Sebastian is nicely played as they share details of each other’s lives, including the origins of his safecracking fixation and the alter ego that ultimately becomes his new name. Schweighöfer balances dorkiness and savvy in his character, making him a likable lead, with each success feeding a new daredevil spirit.
The plotting becomes less imaginative as the story progresses, and the attempt to inject notes of poignancy into late developments is only semi-successful. But the director keeps his foot on the accelerator, notably in action sequences like a wild chase with Sebastian on a bicycle through the streets of Prague’s old town. And the winding Swiss alpine roads of the climax provide scenic grandeur, upping the tension by having Sebastian attempt to open the most challenging of the safes in a moving vehicle.
In terms of craft, the film benefits from typically polished German production values, particularly DP Bernhard Jasper’s agile camerawork and bold use of saturated color. This is a handsome film, and although the script isn’t completely airtight and some of the comedy is a tad broad, its sparky sense of fun keeps things ticking along until a coda that connects the story directly to Army of the Dead. Even if this prequel is tonally quite different and abandons the gore, fans of the first film should find it a diverting addition.
Production companies: Stone Quarry, Pantaleon Films
Cast: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ruby O. Fee, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan, Jonathan Cohen, Noémie Nakai, Christian Steyer, Tonya Graves, Trent Garrett
Director: Matthias Schweighöfer
Screenwriter: Shay Hatten; story by Zack Snyder and Hatten, based on characters created by Snyder
Producers: Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Wesley Coller, Dan Maag, Matthias Schweighöfer
Executive producers: Misha Bukowski, Frank Kusche
Director of photography: Bernhard Jasper
Production designer: Christian Eisele
Costume designer: Stephanie Porter
Editor: Alexander Berner
Music: Hans Zimmer, Steve Mazzaro
Casting: Kate Ringsell, Simone Bär, Maya Kvetny
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