Army of the Dead is a film full of pleasant surprises, but Matthias Schweighöfer, playing a German safecracker with a hair-trigger for impassioned speeches about locks and bolts, is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of them all. The man has a twitchy sort of charm easily misidentified as “quirkiness.” In reality he’s well-mannered to a fault and polite to the point of timidity, but with one other propulsive quality buried beneath the affable veneer: Intensity. Everything Schweighöfer does in Army of the Dead is informed by a vigor belied by his nervousness. He’s a squirrely burglar, quivering one moment over flesh-eating ghouls and doing a heroic sacrifice the next.
This intensity carries over into Army of Thieves, the prequel film to Army of the Dead, where Schweighöfer replaces Zack Snyder in the director’s chair. To allay any fears that Schweighöfer might copy Snyder’s style, don’t worry: Schweighöfer is not Zack Snyder, because nobody is. Everything that singled out Schweighöfer’s work under Snyder’s guidance is infused into Army of Thieves on a molecular level, as if he managed to get his hands on Shay Hatten’s screenplay and bleed all over its pages. Army of Thieves replaces the doom, gloom and zombie chaos with deep-rooted joy, as if Schweighöfer, behind the camera, can scarcely believe he’s directing a film this big established by a filmmaker like Snyder.
It’s impossible to resist that sort of bubbly, crackling enthusiasm, which makes Army of Thieves’ predictable elements easier to countenance. In fact, Schweighöfer makes us look forward to the predictability the way sports fans wait in trembling, eager anticipation of a home run or touchdown: You want it to happen, you’re waiting for it to happen, and if it doesn’t happen then why did you even bother getting out of bed today? Army of Thieves is many things, but it’s rarely if ever a disappointment. It certainly isn’t boring.
Schweighöfer once again plays Ludwig Dieter, safecracker extraordinaire and veteran nerd, except now he goes by Sebastian. Ludwig Dieter is a chosen name. (You may want an explanation. The movie provides.) Living an ordinary life in Berlin, where he works a thankless job being abused by angry customers at a bank, taking his lunch breaks all by his lonesome, Sebastian perks himself up testing his mettle in daily speed safecracking challenges and by uploading videos on the ins, outs and history of safecracking online. Granted, he has a viewership of nobody, but zero viewership is enough to attract the eye of Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), a career bank robber who wants his help opening a series of vaults designed by near-mythical safe designer Hans Wagner.
Her mission is time-sensitive. Army of Thieves does not ignore Army of the Dead: As the heist unfolds, so too does the zombie apocalypse abroad in the United States. Gwendoline must crack the safes before they’re decommissioned due to security concerns raised by the zombie outbreak. So Sebastian joins her and her team, including hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and tough guy Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), using a chosen name as Sebastian so wishes to. (Brad Cage loves and idolizes Brad Pitt and Nicholas Cage. You do the math.) All the while the
gang army is tracked by Interpol agent Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), still stung from the time Brad shot him in the ass. The clock is ticking.
There’s not a lot of ground heist films haven’t covered, and nobody’s really out there baying for new ones, so Schweighöfer does something smart: He surrenders to tropes and tries to have fun instead of reinventing the wheel. Heist films should be fun. Schweighöfer and Hatten both get that. Army of Thieves layers a bit of meta-awareness over the heist scenes, especially the first, where the characters do the standard “go over the plan one more time” montage and acknowledge that they’re doing the “go over the plan one more time” montage. When the montage ends, Sebastian’s at his jitteriest until Gwendoline points out that they’ve already completed the heist. Sebastian looks down. His arms are laden with bags stuffed with money. Cue high-pitched celebratory shrieking.
If the film tried to hide the obvious payoffs to its jokes, they’d be insufferable. But the audience is in on the gag, which makes the gags work in spite of their transparency. It’s easy to make movies sing with just a little earnest sentiment. Army of Thieves, heist film it may be, is fundamentally earnest. Beneath the slick CGI safecracking shots and the hyper-edited (though occasionally flabby) vault sequences there lies Sebastian’s gentle heart. All he wants out of life is meaning. For him, meaning lies in the legend of Wagner’s vaults, which are themselves informed by the legends told in the composer Richard Wagner’s four Gesamtkunstwerk: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Sebastian doesn’t care about the money. He cares slightly more about the excitement. He cares most about the history, the connection the heist gives him to the past and thus to greater appreciation of the self.
Army of Thieves isn’t as high-minded as all that. It is not a film about existential realization. It’s about hot people looking hot while stealing hot cash from banks (which are not hot). But Schweighöfer, Hatten and Snyder fit “more” into their entertainment, and this is a kind gesture. Army of Thieves relies on kindness above all else. It can’t sustain Schweighöfer’s enthusiasm no matter how infectious it is. But for as long as his enthusiasm lasts, the film is a hoot—fie upon the looming threat of undead Armageddon.
Director: Matthias Schweighöfer
Writer: Shay Hatten
Starring: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan, Ruby O. Fee, Jonathan Cohen
Release Date: October 29, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.