Army of Thieves (2021) Review

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, which was available for streaming over five months ago, turned out to be one of the most-watched films on Netflix with a whopping 75 million views worldwide. But too bad quantity does not equal quality. As much as I like the refreshing concept of mixing the usual zombie-movie tropes with the heist genre, the overall execution is rather a mixed bag.

Then comes the prequel called Army of Thieves, where Army of the Dead‘s co-star Matthias Schweighöfer is in charge of directing the film as well while Snyder retains his credit as one of the producers. Unlike the first film, the prequel is pretty much a heist film with a dash of comedy, action and romance.  Schweighöfer doesn’t abandon the zombie element altogether, even though he executed it more as a background acknowledgement via TV news footage and some bizarre dream sequences.

Way before Schweighöfer’s safecracker role of Ludwig Dieter joins Scott Ward’s (Dave Bautista) crew to pull off a US$200 million heist, we learn that he actually named Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert and he works a mundane job as a bank teller. He has a passion for safecracking to the point he even made a YouTube tutorial but barely receives any decent views. One day, he finally manages to get his chance to test his safecracking skill after reading a mysterious comment on his YouTube tutorial.

Well, long story short, he passes the test (an underground safecracking competition of sorts) and he’s invited to join Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) as part of her international crew. From there, he gets to meet the rest of the crew including the brawny Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee) and getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan). Their mission is to crack three complicated safes in various bank locations built by the late safe-builder great Hans Wagner (Christian Steyer).

(L-R) Guz Khan, Stuart Martin, Nathalie Emmanuel and Ruby O. Fee in Netflix's "Army of Thieves" (2021)

Sounds like fun. At least on paper, of course. But the execution turns out to be a different story altogether. Given the idea of pulling off not only one but three heists involving impossible-to-crack safes, I was expecting there would be lots of high-stakes scenarios. The first time when Sebastian is seen cracking a safe, Schweighöfer stages the scene with reasonable thrills and anticipation, combining close-up moments of his character carefully listening and turning the dial and the CGI shot of the internal gears of a safe. It was a thrilling moment to watch at first.

But then, it quickly wears off when the rest of the heist sequences take place because the safecracking action is more of the same. It’s not like Schweighöfer doesn’t attempt to spice things up between the safecracking moments, as evidently with Gwendoline engages in martial arts sequences as she takes down the security guards. Too bad the added action setpieces somehow lack both finesse and excitement. It doesn’t help either when I find it annoying to see Sebastian loves to rant about the history of each three respective safes while cracking them. This, in turn, tends to dilute the suspense and it would have been better if the stories about the three legendary safes are told before the actual heist begins.

The characters are mostly a letdown. Schweighöfer may provide decent comic relief in Army of the Dead but I’m not sure about him getting his own spinoff. His goofy charm can only go so far and his comedic touch is often repetitive. Frankly, the kind of character that he plays here fits better as a supporting role than leading a film. Nathalie Emmanuel brings a likeable and sexy charm to her character as Gwendoline, even though her would-be onscreen romance with Schweighöfer lacks all the necessary sparks.

Similar to Army of the Dead, this prequel also suffers the case of overstaying its welcome, where it unnecessarily stretches over two hours long. Sure, the film is not as lengthy as the former’s bloated 148-minute running time. But it still feels like it desperately needs some serious trimmings, thanks to the significantly tedious moments throughout the film.

Army of Thieves is currently streaming on Netflix.

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