Army of the Dead

Army of Thieves

14/11/21

Netflix

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.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Army of the Dead

28/05/21

Netflix

‘It’s fast, it’s frantic and above all, it’s fun to watch.’

That’s what I said about Train to Busan. Unfortunately, this is Army of the Dead and, though the expertly-edited trailer suggests that this could be up there with Sang-ho Yeon’s movie, the end result is frankly not in the same league. This is a film by Zack Snyder.

Snyder has previous form in this genre. His 2004 reworking of George Romero’s horror classic, Dawn of the Dead, was actually pretty good. It was the film that originated the idea that the undead didn’t have to shuffle along like… well, zombies, but could hurtle after their prey like Mo Farah on steroids. This might not sound like much but, in its own way, it was a bit of a game-changer. Of course, over the intervening years, Snyder has pursued a path of making his films bigger, louder and er… longer. Sadly, Army of the Dead is no exception. To be fair, it opens brilliantly. The title sequence galumphs merrily along to a jaunty tune, and manages to convey the film’s entire back story in a blood-spattered nutshell.

But then the titles end and we realise we’ve still got got two hours and twenty six minutes to go…

Former mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) has been a major part in saving the world from a zombie epidemic. His reward is a dead-end job, flipping burgers in a cafe. He’s understandably miffed. Then, he’s approached by Casino owner, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Tanaka), who informs him of millions in dollars in cash, locked up in a vault beneath Las Vegas. The only problem is, the place is currently a walled-off zone, housing all the remaining zombies from a disastrous outbreak, and it’s due to be tactically nuked in a few days’ time. Would Scott be prepared to assemble a squad of former associates and head into the city to ‘liberate’ the money? He can keep fifty million and divide it up however he wants.

Before you can say “Hmm, sounds risky,’ Scott has his team assembled and is heading into Las Vegas intent on setting himself and his friends up for a more prosperous future. He has a way in. His estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), works in a detention centre right next to the barricades. Scott and Ella are distant, mostly because Scott had to push a knife into his wife (Ella’s mother)’s brain back in the day, but, to be fair, she was turning in to a zombie. So here’s the ideal opportunity to reconnect.

Anyhow, in the mercenaries go and we’re all set for a taut, exciting bloodfest, right?

But no, Snyder wants to take every opportunity to establish his characters. It doesn’t help that they are a fairly tedious bunch, who seem incapable of making the right decision in any given situation. They say things that no real person would ever say, have a predilection for making bad jokes at importune moments, and an attempt to play up a feminist angle for Lily (Nora Arnezeder) is woefully misjudged. The most interesting of the characters is undoubtedly safe-cracker, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöff), but a plot hole the size of Nevada means that there’s no logical reason for him to to be on the team in the first place.

But what really weighs this down is the film’s lack of pace. Busan threw its characters headlong through a whole series of frantic set-pieces, hardly giving an audience the chance to take a collective breath, but Army takes us along at a slow trudge, with too many tedious stops along the way. Snyder always has a great eye as cinematographer – indeed, I suspect this is where his true talents lie. The world building here is skilfully done and the renderings of a devastated Las Vegas are spot on. There are also some stirring action sequences, including a thrill-packed helicopter flight, towards the end.

But it’s not enough to salvage the dead weight of what’s gone before. An odd conclusion (with another gigantic plot hole) seems to be setting up for a sequel but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on Snyder’s part.

In short, this zombie film is ultimately toothless – and it sucks.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney