Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead was a mirthless, disjointed affair that spoke to all of the director’s faults while also being uncommonly ugly at the same time. I’m no hater of Snyder’s work. I loved his new cut of Justice League, Dead left me skeptical of the reputation he’s gained as an auteur to watch. Army of Thieves, a prequel spinoff of Dead that started production long before the latter was released to a tepid audience reception, becomes the second instance in the last decade of another director coming into one of Snyder’s worlds and crafting a much more enjoyable experience. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice begat Wonder Woman and Aquaman, after all, two thorough crowd-pleasers that started franchises of their own by immediately distancing themselves from Snyder’s moral and aesthetic universe. So, too, does Thieves distance itself from Dead in every possible way it can. That’s not to say Thieves is great, but it’s a pretty average, slightly under-baked heist film with affable characters and a much more interesting take on the leading man, Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Given where the franchise started, average feels remarkable.
The story starts six years prior to Dead, which the dozen fans of that film would recognize as the start of the Zombie War in the United States. The War was mostly contained to Las Vegas, so the rest of the world is relatively unchanged besides nightly TV broadcasts of blood, guts and gore. By night, Dieter is a safe-cracking enthusiast with a YouTube channel pulling in audiences of … zero. By day, he works a dead-end office job, wishing he could be anywhere else. His wish is granted when Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) pulls him into her small family of thieves — really not much of an army! — out to rob three legendary, supposedly uncrackable safes.
Dieter recognizes the targets as three of four safes designed by Hans Wagner, who based them off Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle. The Rheingold, the Valkryie and the Siegfried are increasingly complex works of engineering artistry that nobody but Dieter understands. He can’t turn Gwendoline down. The money doesn’t matter. This is the adventure of a lifetime.
Schweighöfer, who also directed, brings a lightness to Dieter that didn’t really exist in Snyder’s film, where everything was unnecessarily edgy to a fault. Here he’s a sweet nerd in over his head, driven by a desire to prove himself more than anything. He is considerably less annoying than in the debut film, although it would be hard to persuade anyone who hated Dead to give this one a shot based on the promise of more Dieter.
A small epilogue to this story splices in footage of Dieter’s recruitment in Dead, as if to remind you of the fact that nothing gets better for Dieter, or the audience, after the credits roll on his story here. It’s as tone-deaf as Snyder’s epilogue to his Justice League cut, which is a shame. Schweighöfer and Emmanuel have real chemistry, even if their romance is pretty cut-and-paste “nerdy guy proves himself to beautiful, troubled woman.” Korina (Ruby O. Fee), the hacker in their crew, is also memorable and will probably never be seen again because Dieter’s story definitively ends in Dead. Part of me was hoping the epilogue would be a post-credits reveal that Dieter’s fate in Dead wasn’t so conclusive. No such luck.
It’s a good thing the cast’s chemistry and Schweighöfer’s affability carry the story because otherwise it’s a tensionless affair. Dieter cracks safes by hugging them and whispering to them, which is a little weird. A third-act attempt to make the process more exciting by setting it in a moving vehicle doesn’t really change the nature of his safecracking in any meaningful way. Worse, their lawman nemesis, Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), is a complete non-entity and never feels like a threat. House music features prominently in Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro’s score, and it’s an appropriate audio accompaniment — fairly shallow, all vibes.
But the vibes here are undeniably pleasant even if they’re cookie-cutter lifting from better heist movies. The romantic-comedy aspect plays better than the heist stuff. Given that this is a Netflix production, it all feels a little long and surface-level, built to be watched while distracted. By that metric, it succeeds. It’s content, a prequel produced about a character from a bad film nobody cares about, thrown onto the streaming service to give their budding franchise some weight as a scrollable category. Although otherwise bland, it’s honestly better than its predecessor. It really is too bad Thieves is a spinoff of Dead because everything left on the table here has far more promise than what pans out in the next story. Maybe it’s time Netflix pulls a DC and just pigeonholes Snyder’s Army stuff into its own timeline while building out that universe with directors who know how to have some fun with the world he introduced.