Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead was something of a disappointment for me – overlong, over-familiar and featuring a prominent plot hole the size of a small continent – so news that a prequel was happening failed to fill me with anticipation. True, it would centre around AotD’s most interesting character, Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), and okay, the zombie elements in this film would be kept to glimpses of the carnage happening over in Las Vegas, but still… how good could it possibly be?
Well, pass me a large helping of humble pie, because Army of Thieves is surprisingly entertaining.
When we first encounter Ludwig, he’s living in Germany and making YouTube videos about safecracking (as you do). In one of them, he recounts the story of legendary locksmith, Hans Wagner, the man who created four super-safes inspired by the Ring Cycle of Norse mythology. There’s an intriguing fairytale feel to these opening scenes, which provides a strong hook for the following events, which echo those of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Ludwig’s presentations attract zero views, so when he receives a lone comment inviting him to attend a mysterious meeting, he’s intrigued enough to go along. Here, he finds himself competing in a safecracking competition – and, when he wins, it isn’t long before he’s approached by Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel). She’s an accomplished thief, who wants to enlist his expertise in her attempt to do the impossible: to break into three of Wagner’s famous strongboxes.
The fourth safe is, of course, in a casino in Vegas, surrounded by zombies…
Ludwig also meets the other members of Gwendoline’s gang. They are Korina (Ruby O. Fee), Rolph (Guz Khan) and the improbably named Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), a macho blowhard – and Gwendoline’s partner – and he doesn’t much care for the new addition to the team. But, obviously, they can’t achieve their objective without a safecracker to help them. (Mind you, if this is the ‘Army’ of the title, it’s a decidedly small one. It’s barely a platoon!) Little do they know that they are being pursued by their nemesis, Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), a hardbitten cop with a personal axe to grind.
What ensues is equal parts heist movie and romcom and, while it’s every bit as unlikely as its zombie predecessor, it has a lot more charm to play with and does at least have the sense to go for laughs. Schweighöfer (who also directs the film) is great at portraying a hapless but gifted nerd, trying to keep his head above water when he’s way out of his depth. While it’s never entirely clear exactly how he’s managing to get into those super-complicated safes, it’s fun watching his progress as events rapidly build to a fever pitch. There are effective chases and action scenes and one particular sequence – introduced with the line, ‘if this were a heist movie we’d probably show it like this’ – has a delicious sense of irony about it.
Prequels rarely live up to the film they’re introducing, but Army of Thieves bucks the trend and easily surpasses it. Sure, the bar wasn’t very high in the first place, but this is well worth catching and I think Schweighöfer has an interesting future ahead of him.